Thursday, 28 April 2011

Welcome to 'From Forty With Love'

After much pondering and procrastination, I've launched a website called 'From Forty With Love' where I will continue to blog and write from my heart.

I'd love you all to come and follow me over there. I tried, I think, to move my subscribers over automatically but I'm not sure that's worked. Nor am I sure whether that's very polite! You might have been happy subscribing here but might not want to subscribe over there. But I'd love it if you chose to keep following my journey and I'd love it if you wanted to share your story for 'From Forty With Love'. Read all about it and feel free to get in touch!

Thank you!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Coming soon: From Forty With Love

Lent and my Lenten experiment - abstaining from negative thoughts about my body, appearance and achievements for 40 days - officially came to an end on Easter Sunday. Unlike giving up chocolate, bread or crisps for Lent, however, this doesn't end here. What I've learned from this blog and this experiment is that self-acceptance, self-love, self-care and gratitude do not come naturally to someone with a long history of self-criticism, self-harm, self-neglect and negative thinking. What is required is a gentle, daily effort to be kind to myself, to try to practice gratitude at all times and in all circumstances and to love and appreciate myself, just as I am. I have to say, though, that I'm proud of myself for starting this blog, for writing on it almost every day and for my diligence and commitment in putting together some pretty decent posts - if I do say so myself!

One great by-product of this blog that I hadn't really anticipated is the community I've found. I have connected with so many amazing individuals and organisations that are championing body confidence and self-love and challenging the thought processes and the industries that feed low self-esteem and self-hate. This blog has also given me confidence in my own creativity, my writing and the value of my experience - it's a tentative confidence but a confidence all the same. For all of the above, I'm deeply grateful. And I'm equally grateful to all those who've read this blog, commented on it, connected with me or supported this endeavour. I hope you learned something too or found a little more freedom from whatever you're struggling with. And let's face it, we all struggle with something!

But since the journey continues, so does my writing. 'From Forty With Love' is the next step in my blogging journey. I've used that title once before - on my 40th birthday post. Very soon, it'll be the name of a new website and I hope to be able to move my registered readers over there with the help of technology - and a technologically minded person! - or that you'll want to come and join me there anyway. 'Just As I Am' documented the first 40 days (or 46 days if you count the Sundays through Lent) of my self-acceptance journey and it was fitting that I turned 40 during that period. But I know this year is going to be one of great transition, much learning, some changing and more and more freedom around the things that have held me back in the past and I'd really like to share my progress. I'd also really like to share the thoughts and stories of other women of a similar age. So 'From Forty With Love' will be a space for sharing experiences around some of the issues that are peculiar to this time in our lives - anything from career change to fertility to exercise to spirituality to relationships. Hopefully we'll learn from each other and the site will be a space where other women can go to for hope, inspiration, knowledge or a good old giggle. So more about that very soon.

It's interesting, however, that to get this site up and running I have to challenge some of those very things I've been blogging about over the past 40 days and that I hope to write about in the future - the very things that have often held me back from taking a leap of faith. Not so much the body image stuff but the low self-esteem, the perfectionism, the fear of making a decision and making a mistake and the procrastination. To get over my fear and my procrastination, I've been checking out the words of best-selling author, entrepreneur and motivational speaker Seth Godin. Is watching videos on YouTube procrastinating?! Anyway, if you've never come across him, check out this short video in which he describes his theory about the 'lizard brain' - the source of our angst, fear, limited thinking and inability to 'ship' or complete a project.

And for a much more amusing take on Seth Godin's theories, check out this cartoon video.

Whichever video you prefer, the message is pretty much the same: get on and do it.

But before I do (I'd put a smiley face here if I didn't think it looked unprofessional), a word about maintenance. Why is maintenance so hard? Am I alone in finding maintenance hard? Is this a female thing or do men also struggle with maintenance? I'm talking about maintaining anything from our physical body to our car. So on Monday morning I washed my scooter and checked and topped up its oil. It hadn't been washed for about 2 years, maybe more, and I usually leave the oil check to the mechanic at the time of its annual service. Now, scooters don't use much oil so I'm not being overly reckless but I had been scootering around for a good six months wondering if I needed to top up the oil, living with a little bit of anxiety, living very slightly on the edge. And how good did I feel once I'd given it a good clean and checked the oil? It felt really good. I felt like a grown-up, like a responsible person who looks after her belongings. I even added a touch of oil to my bicycle chain although I ran out of time so couldn't clean the bike properly. Still, the chain no longer squeaks so that's also a result.

The episode made me ponder how difficult I find maintenance, and that includes my physical body. I've always been good at the exercises that might give me an adrenalin high or lose lots of calories, but when it comes to the slow, methodical ankle or Pilates exercises that are essential to strengthen my joints and muscles, that's where I fall down. I know I've mentioned this before but I think it's worth mentioning again.

Now, in the spirit of this blog, I can accept where I am today. I can accept that, until now, I've never been very good at maintenance or at doing anything slow and gradual that doesn't give instant results. But I can also take steps to change. I'm learning that maintenance is good - for the scooter, the body and the soul. Now I smile every time I look at my scooter instead of groaning at the grime. And I can ride it in the knowledge that the oil is topped up and I've taken care of it. Taking care of ourselves feels really good. I guess it's just about getting into the habit of doing it more often.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Day 40: We have too much to offer

We have too much too offer, the need is too great and it's far too important ... to hide our light under a lamp, to let our fears control us, to allow our low self-esteem to hold us back and to waste our precious time and energy thinking we're not good enough, thin enough, pretty enough or acceptable enough.

That's the conclusion I came to today after listening for hours to inspirational women describe how they walked through their fears, conquered their feelings of inadequacy, overcame great loss or recovered from emotional lows to set up social enterprises that are impacting human rights, poverty or climate change, saving wildlife, building peace in conflict zones or giving neglected children a lifeline and a future. I've been at an event called Women On Fire in Central London where amazing women from scientists to poets to drummers to singers to social entrepreneurs to environmentalists came together to share their wisdom and celebrate women's power and our connectedness to Earth. I laughed, I danced and was moved to tears by quite a few of the speakers.

As someone with a passion to write about women who are doing amazing things around the world, today really got me thinking, particularly about the whole body image thing. Of course, negative body image is a huge problem and, as I've mentioned a few times, the statistics show body hate and eating disorders are on the rise around the globe and are having devastating consequences on young women and men, stealing their joy and even taking their lives. But today's event showed me the bigger picture. It gave me so many powerful reasons to put my past - the body obsession, compulsive eating, low self-esteem and so on - behind me, in order to move on to much more important things.

I feel it's time that I, and that all of us if we aren't already, start using our gifts and talents in a way that will have a positive impact on other people or the planet. I know many women who are already doing this (I've included a few in this blog) and I met many more today but I know there are others of us out there who are held back by fear. In my case, I have my writing, my languages and my communication, public speaking and leadership skills that all deserve to be put to good use. It would be selfish not to share what I have for the good of others. I'm not quite sure how that'll happen in the long-term but I can begin with what I know - storytelling. I can pitch some of the stories of these amazing female social entrepreneurs and human rights activists to newspapers and magazines as well as putting them on my own website. And to do that, I'll need to put my own fears - of failure, of rejection - and my perfectionism to one side.

Of course, it's not about changing the world over night. As an extremist, that's kind of how I think. But it's been pointed out to me that my self-critical voice is still present at times so I'll note here that I accept my journey to date and that, going forward, it's about balance, doing what I can while practicing moderation, self-care and self-acceptance in all things - or as much as possible. 

I find it interesting that I began this blog after attending the Endangered Species women's summit in London, which launched an international campaign to preserve the female body against a barrage of self-hate and body obsession, fed by the media, fashion and cosmetic surgery industries. But then I ended this Lenten period at Women on Fire, which had a different focus. This was about taking action on a different set of problems facing humanity today: conflict and war, global poverty, human and civil rights abuses, child neglect and the degradation of the planet and wildlife habitats. I also have a part to play in this bigger picture and I need all the time, energy, self-belief and self confidence I can muster to play my part effectively. And that includes the time and energy I would otherwise spend worrying about how I look or how thin I am. As I said, we have too much too offer, the need is too great and it's far too important not to get involved.

Of course, I can also play a role in the body image debate, as I hope I have through this blog, and freeing women and men from addictive and compulsive behaviours is an equally worthwhile and vital cause and one I'm passionate about. But if I can free myself from my own prison of negative thinking, body obsession, perfectionism and fear of failure and put my talents to good use, I'll be a much more powerful example and a better role model to those who follow on behind me. Again, while practicing balance and self-acceptance (I have to keep reminding myself it's progress not perfection!).

So today is the last day of Lent and officially the last day of my experiment. But self-acceptance is for life, not just for Lent! I will continue to blog here although this blog will - once I confront my own fear of failure or of making mistakes - more than likely morph into something else in the coming days or weeks, something I hope that will combine the themes of self-acceptance and freedom from negative thinking with the idea of inspiring and mentoring others through the stories of remarkable women from all walks of life. Easter, after all, is a time of resurrection, of new life and new beginnings, so it's only right that I should think about starting something new.

In the meantime, I'll end on a quote I heard at today's event from a poem by thirteenth century Persian poet Jalal ad Din-Rumi: "Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?" The door is wide open. I hope I can walk through it.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Day 39: It takes some shaking

It's late in the evening but it's the penultimate day of Lent so I thought I'd just write a very brief post. While I'll be carrying on with this blog next week - and until I'm ready to morph it into something else - tomorrow is officially the last day of the 40-day self-acceptance experiment. So how has it gone? Well, I'll say a little bit more about that tomorrow (assuming I have time to post!) but for today, I just wanted to say thank you to Nick of Wearehuman who commented on my last post, gently pointing out that perhaps the self-critical voice was still present at times and could be heard through my writing. And of course he's right. I know on occasion I've hit the publish button on a blog post but been left wondering just how self-accepting I had actually been in what I'd written. So my conclusion is that it's probably going to take more than 40 days to reverse decades of self-criticism and negative thinking. Habits can be difficult to break. I'm proud, however, that I've made a good start over the past 40 days and have chipped away at some of the thought patterns and behaviours that don't serve me. And it's progress not perfection that counts!

So tomorrow I'm going to the Women on Fire event in London and it sounds like it'll be very timely. The purpose of Women on Fire, according to its website, is "to encourage women to live the power of gentleness, to bring tenderness to all walks of life, personal and professional, but most especially to themselves". That sounds right up my street and very much in line with the sentiment of this blog. While it's going to be hard for me to be indoors all day tomorrow if it's glorious sunshine outside (I might have to escape to the sun now and then), I'm looking forward to listening to and connecting with some inspirational women. Maybe I'll see some of you there!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Day 38: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

I've been thinking about the topic of risk-taking as this Lent period comes to an end and I ponder where next for this blog and my writing. As I wrote in my Day 17 post 'Trusting your gut', in the past I was always very good at taking physical risks: jumping off bridges into rivers, jumping out of planes with a parachute, leaping off bridges with bungee cords or hitchhiking on my own on long, lonely Australian highways. Some of these were calculated risks, others were acts of recklessness, perhaps even acts of defiance, borne out of a sense of invincibility that bordered sometimes on stupidity. I was always looked after but I had a few scares - a couple of armed muggings in Mexico City in the late 1990s, for example, after taking unlicensed taxis off the street at night despite knowing full well that that was dangerous.

As I've grown older, calmer and more sensible, I've become much more cautious. That's not a bad thing when it comes to avoiding danger but sometimes I think I've swung to the opposite end of the scale - I am a person of extremes after all - and been over careful. But one of the conclusions I've come to thanks to this Lenten blog is that I'd like to take more risks, I'd like to operate more freely, with less fear, in my work, my relationships and my activities. So I'm hoping after Easter I'll put that into practice, with this blog and whatever I decide to turn it into (I'll keep you posted!), with my freelance journalism career and in many other areas of my life.

After all, it's only me holding me back. There's no one stood behind me tugging at my shirt, stopping me from moving forward. I'm the only one who puts limits on my potential. As an aside, a friend told me a funny joke about potential the other day, a joke told by a TV comedian whose name escapes me. I've never been any good at retelling jokes, and especially not without having heard the original delivery, but it was something about our potential being this bright, shining, mystical thing that hovers above us, something we look upon with admiration, knowing it's amazing. But don't, the comedian apparently said, go anywhere near it whatever you do, or you might discover it's not all that bright, shining, mystical or amazing after all. You might discover it's actually pretty dull. As I said, that was a joke. I actually think we all have amazing potential - some of us put it to good use, others partially put it to good use and others, unfortunately, keep their potential at a safe distance!  

When thinking of people who fulfilled their potential Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros spring to mind, the photographers who were killed on the frontline in Libya yesterday. Hetherington had been nominated for an Oscar for his documentary on Afghanistan, Restrepo, and had won the World Press Photo of the Year Award a few times. I'm generally moved when journalists are killed, being one myself. I never really fulfilled my childhood ambition of frontline war reporting (for years I wanted to be Kate Adie) although I have been to a few turbulent places and been in some scary situations. And I've worked with and come across many fabulous and courageous photographers. I'm finding Hetherington's death particularly moving. He was from my hometown of Liverpool, a year older than me it seems. And he'd also studied at Oxford. Had I ever come across him, back home, at university or in some far-flung place? I was particularly moved by the words of his girlfriend, Idil Ibrahim, who called him her 'Timinator', and the tributes that flooded in from his colleagues. There's such camaraderie in that line of work.

When it comes to taking risks, these photographers were certainly out there, fulfilling their potential and working at something they felt incredibly passionate about. I guess the only consolation is that they died doing something they really loved.

Going back to the topic of risk-taking outside the war zone, there are plenty of great quotes out there on risk. Here's one I like by T.S. Eliot: "You have to risk going too far to discover how far you can really go." But then there is also value in weighing up a risk before stepping out as French historian Andre Malraux said: "Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage one has to bet one one's ideas, to take a calculated risk - and to act."

To end on a brighter note, I was reminded by a good friend the other day how women love to talk. Her husband had been wondering what on earth she and I talked about for an hour or so on the phone, especially when we were going to be meeting up in the near future. I remember my Mum saying that to me when I was a teenager - why was I talking for hours on the phone when I'd be seeing my friend the next day? I guess when she was a teenager she didn't have the luxury of long phone calls. But yes, most of us women love to talk - and that's one of the many things I love about being a woman!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Days 36 & 37: The periphery of passion

I can't believe it's the 37th day of Lent today. Well done to all of you who've given up chocolate for Lent or some other foodstuff or behaviour you're particularly attached to. Every now and then, I have to remind myself what I've given up and what this blog is all about. I've been abstaining for Lent from negative thoughts about my body, appearance and achievements. I certainly think I've made progress on the first two. I'm learning to challenge those critical thoughts when I look in the mirror or see photos of myself I think I look fat in. I think I've still got a long way to go before I feel totally comfortable in feminine dresses or revealing my legs and arms, but at least I can go ahead and do it, even if I don't feel totally comfortable.

The achievements thing is another matter. I do tend to be very hard on myself - about what I've achieved or haven't or the decisions I've taken or 'mistakes' I've made. But what I am learning is that every 'mistake' (I'm using the inverted comma because I'm ambivalent about the word) is a learning experience. Admittedly, sometimes a painful one, or an expensive one, but a learning experience all the same. And sometimes things I think were mistakes actually turn out not to be, if I wait around a little to see how things pan out. The key is not to panic and to have a little patience (not one of my biggest virtues, as I mentioned on Days 31 & 32).

So I found myself in a bit of a panic earlier this week, wondering what to do with this blog, whether to just keep blogging here or turn it into a homemade site or pay a designer to create one for me, what to call it and how to focus it. But then I did that miraculous and totally underrated thing of asking for help. I put my frustration and my questions out there to friends, family and strangers and got some encouraging comments and tips in return - and at the same time was able to offer a bit of encouragement to someone else.

I was reminded to bring it back to basics and this kind of ties in with my last blog post about discovering our passions and following them. I know I can often get lost on the periphery of my passions. So I'll debate for hours in my head and with friends what to do with my blog or what to call a new site and will forget to ask myself what it's all about, and more to the point, what is it about it that I enjoy? What makes my heart sing? That's the key because, paraphrasing Frederick Buechner's quote from my last post, when I'm doing something that makes my heart sing I'm most likely to have a positive impact on others and the world around me.

So, for me, this blog has been a fantastic space and platform to write from my heart after years of writing from my head, to share my experience in the hope someone will be encouraged by it or learn from it and to get creative with words, links, photos and video. What I'm truly passionate about is sharing my own soul and that of others. That might sound a bit heavy but what I mean is sharing our deepest passions, fears, hopes, joys and disappointments, with a view to learning from each other so that we can all live fuller, more meaningful lives and make choices in line with our passions.

Yes, even to me this all sounds very touchy feely and I'm also wondering if it isn't a little arrogant to think my experience or writing might help others. But I guess that's what my instinct tells me, as well as some lovely comments I've received over the course of this blog. Whatever this blog becomes, I hope it'll continue to be a space where I can write from my heart and share my experiences and those of others. Maybe it'll just be a platform from where I can pitch articles to magazines with a far greater audience. If that's the case, that's fine too. And it has occurred to me that it's much easier to blog than do the scarier thing of ringing up a magazine editor and proposing a story and then writing it to fit their style and format. However, I think I owe it to myself to get moving in that area also.

I've just read something for some freelance book reviews I do. It's called 'A Game Plan For Life. The Power of Mentoring' by the late legendary college basketball coach John Wooden, who died last year aged 99. No, I'd never heard of him either before I opened the book, but then I've never been much of a basketball fan. It's funny, I do book reviews now and then and the book generally turns out to be very timely. So this book was all about absorbing knowledge from others and passing on wisdom and experience. He also had a fantastic definition of success: "Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the best effort to become the best of which you are capable". I like that. And I especially like the idea of peace of mind as I feel I haven't had that much of it over the years.

This post has been very pensive so I'll end with a few thoughts on body image. Firstly, the Barbie debate. I mentioned the debate about Barbie as a terrible role model for girls or as a harmless doll on Day Thirteen via a post by Natasha Devon of Body Gossip. Personally, it's not something I've given a huge amount of thought to but I probably should. A lot of other people have thought a lot about Barbie and her impact, however.

Galia Slayen, an American student from Oregon, built a life-sized representation of Barbie to raise awareness around eating disorders. The Barbie stands about 6 feet tall with a 39" bust, 18" waist and 33" hips. Galia, who wrestled with anorexia for a year, said she didn't blame her childhood doll for her disease but Barbie did impact the way she felt about herself. Galia dressed her life-size Barbie in a size 00 skirt left over from her own anorexic days. I'd never heard of size 00 to be honest but according to various answers on the Internet, it's equivalent to a size 2 in the UK, although a size 2 actually doesn't exist in the UK. You can read more about the Barbie debate on this women's rights website Care2.

And finally, I'm pleased to say my weekend in the countryside cycling, camping, listening to live music and standing around laughing under the stars for hours helped a lot with my baby angst and filled me with a lot of gratitude for the things I do have in my life as well as excitement about a summer of more fun. But for anyone who is struggling with the whole baby thing and not just in their heads, I wanted to introduce a lovely lady and a friend of mine. Anya Sizer is The Fertility Coach and she offers help, support and advice to women and couples who are struggling to get pregnant.

So onwards and upwards. Working, planning, laughing, exercising, enjoying nature and practicing patience and self-acceptance in all areas.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Days 34 & 35: Do more of what you love

It isn't rocket science and you've probably heard it many times before. I know I have. But I re-discovered this past weekend that the theory of doing more of what you love really is one of the keys to contentment. I also discovered that I deserve to challenge that voice in my head that frequently tries to deter me from doing the things I love - and often succeeds - by telling me that I'm too tired or that I'm too busy or that I'm not fit enough or that my back will hurt or that it'll be too cold or that I won't get any sleep and therefore won't enjoy myself and won't be in good shape to do my work the following week. You know the voice I mean?

That voice was trying hard to get my attention last week and almost succeeded. I had accepted a last-minute invite from a friend to go to the one-day Honeyfest music festival at the Barge Inn Community Project in Wiltshire on Saturday to hear Damien Rice, The Magic Numbers, Laura Marling and others play to a small audience of 1500 in the grounds of a pub by the side of a canal. What more could I wish for? On top of that, we'd camp overnight and go mountain biking on Sunday - two of my favourite activities. I said 'yes' in a flash. But then, towards the end of the week, swamped by a challenging work project, tired after being kept awake by anxiety about a variety of things, worried about the weather and about my aching lower back, I started to wonder whether I was really up to the weekend's activities. What if my back seized up? Did I have all the right equipment? Wouldn't I be better sleeping in on Saturday morning after a stressful week? When on earth was I going to pack? What if it rained all weekend? How was I going to get my bike and myself through the London traffic to Paddington station? Fortunately, though, I decided to ignore that voice and all those questions and just go with the flow. And as it turned out, I packed in no time early on Saturday morning, discovered I had all the appropriate gear - panniers, light-weight tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cycling shorts etc - and made it to Paddington with 45 minutes to spare. OK so I did have to charm the guard to let me on the train with my bike as I hadn't reserved and the bike coach was full but he gave in to my pleas and finally let me squeeze on. After a comfortable train journey, I got off the train at Pewsey in Wiltshire and cycled off to meet my friends at the campsite. No problem at all. So what on earth was all that worrying about?

Have bicycle, will travel
And of course, once I was on the move, I couldn't imagine why I'd ever questioned the trip. I felt such a feeling of freedom, of glorious independence and self-sufficiency, as I got off the train and trundled along to the campsite with all my belongings on the back of my bike - asking directions from a few friendly locals as I went. For me, this is what being 40, single and childfree is all about. This is what I hope to be doing much more of instead of pondering the 'what ifs?' or coveting someone else's life. I guess that voice that tells me I need more rest or that I'm not up to a challenge will always be there. It's my job to ignore it or simply say 'thanks for sharing' and carry on with my plans. That said, for me it's not about saying 'yes' to everything - balance will always be key.

Damien Rice performing at Honeyfest
So back to Pewsey and the Honeyfest. The weekend proved to be a fantastic mix of new friends, great live music, exercise, the outdoors and laughter, a lot of laughter. Damien Rice was superb. Laura Marling's voice and music were powerful and moving. The Magic Numbers made us all sing and smile. Ok, so it was absolutely freezing in my tent at night, even with my miniature hot water bottle. I haven't been that cold for a long time and I didn't get very much sleep. But it really didn't matter. Bright sunlight warmed our tents in the morning and the sun shone all day on Sunday. I spent the day cycling with two friends through beautiful countryside looking out onto one of Wiltshire's white chalk horses. We stopped at a garden centre for lunch and freshly made scones and then I cycled back to the station, put my bike on the train and had a pleasant journey home. Getting off at Paddington and cycling through the London traffic, I admit, was a bit of a shock to the system but I was soon on the Regent's Canal cycle path that takes me most of the way home and imagining I was back in the countryside. 

Yes, I ended up absolutely exhausted but it was well worth it. My back ached a little after a day on a bike but less, it seems, than at the end of a week sat over my computer. I admit there was a feeling of anti-climax and loneliness as I returned to my flat after such a busy and social weekend but that's OK, especially as I have plenty more weekends like the last one to look forward to and a new determination to do much more of what I love.

As I started this post, I did a quick Google search for 'do more of what you love' and stumbled across the site Zenhabits - one of the top 25 blogs in the world with a readership of more than 200,000, apparently. Zenhabits is about "finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives". The latest post is entitled 'The world needs you to do what you love' written by Jonathan Meade of Illuminated Mind, a site designed to help and encourage people to be their authentic selves and follow their dreams. In his post, Jonathan says "the greatest change happens because of people that are deeply passionate, and have a great love for the work they do" and he goes on to list seven things you can do to help you find out what you're passionate about and find a way to get paid to do it. I love this post and it's really timely for me as that's where I'm at right now: discovering what I'm truly passionate about and finding a way to build a life around that. This blog and whatever I turn it into (I hope to have a clear plan by the end of this week) is very much part of that process. Of all the various things I do right now in my journalism career, this blog is what I'm most passionate about - it keeps me up at night and gets me out of bed in the morning.

The idea that we'll only truly have an impact on the world if we're doing what we're passionate about ties in with the ethos of Could You?, the New York-based non-profit I wrote about on Day 33. On Could You?'s home page you'll see a quote by American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner
that defines Could You?'s mission: "True vocation joins self and service; it comes from the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need." I totally support that idea - that if we find the intersect between our passions and a need in the world, we'll be both fulfilled and have a positive impact.

So how do we find out our true passions? I think we all kind of know what they are but they're often buried under stress, worry, fear and habit. I, for one, am financially insecure, which often stops me from taking the leap of faith required to fulfil my dreams. I'm also pretty afraid - of success and failure - and am a habitual worrier. I'm working on changing all this while at the same time realising, as I've written before, that fear rarely leaves us - what's important is to learn to walk through it.

I do believe, though, that the Could You? trip I went on last summer helped edge me towards discovering my passions and following them - through the relationships I formed and the experiences I had as well as some practical exercises we did. So at the end of the one-week Mozambique trip, we went on safari in South Africa, to a private game reserve on the edge of the Kruger National Park. There, we saw some amazing landscapes and got up close with lions, leopards, giraffes and elephants but we also did a lot of processing of what we'd seen and felt on our week-long immersion trip to one of the world's poorest countries. One of the exercises we were asked to do involved flicking through magazines and cutting out words and pictures that spoke to us and then gluing them onto a piece of paper and folding the paper into a little book. This created a kind of collage of our lives, hopes and dreams. It was great fun but also, I think, quite revealing, particularly as it was done spontaneously, without much thought or analysis. I look at my book frequently and really cherish it. I picked out far more words than pictures and created a collage of words and phrases.

The front page of my life collage
On the front page, in bright red letters, is the word 'blogging' and believe me, at the time, I had no idea that I actually wanted to blog or would end up doing so. The phrase 'Life. It's what you put in' is also on the front, as is 'women'. There's also a picture of a girl on a mountain biking safari and a dog by the beach - I'd really love to have a dog and live by the beach, and I believe I will. On the other pages, there are more dogs, some diamond rings (I was planning on buying myself one although I've decided the stone will be aquamarine - my birth stone), two friends by a beach with another dog, a mother swinging her child on a beach, a man bungy jumping, two couples and a tropical island. There's also a picture of smiling lips with the word 'heartbreak' written above, which I believe ties in with my desire to touch into the heartbreaks behind our smiles. My smile has been noted many times over the years but few people got a glimpse of the heartbreak or the pain behind it. There are many more words and phrases in my book, including 'Don't tie yourself in knots', 'Sport', 'Partner', 'Everyone's an original', 'Exceptional Journey', 'Grateful', 'Because you're worth it', 'Creativity', 'EverPure', 'Go forth', 'Bring on the baby', 'Chase What Matters', 'Workout', 'Let's do amazing' and 'Inspired by you'.

Another page of my life book
Now, you may think this is just a random collection of cool phrases but every time I look at it, I'm amazed by how close these words, phrases and pictures are to my heart, hopes and dreams. I'm also amazed at how closely they tie in with the topics of this blog and the thought processes that have fed into it. Throughout my life, I've felt very unsure of myself, of who I am and what I want, but this little exercise and the collage that resulted from it revealed to me, in a really comforting way, that I do know my own heart, my dreams and my passions and probably always have. I'm glad I'm finally letting them out into the open and having the courage to follow them.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Day 33: African Dreams

So, enough about me and matters close to home. Today I'm taking you on a journey to the beautiful land of South Africa to meet a wonderful, inspiring woman - Heather Costaras. I mentioned Heather in a previous post but didn't have the time to go into detail about her amazing work. Today I do. Heather is a social entrepreneur, artist, activist, author, songwriter, singer, speaker, wife and mother, amongst other things. In 2007, Heather threw in her job as a business owner and full-time graphic designer and founded The Beautiful Life Project, an organisation that aims "to encourage, inspire, motivate, empower and challenge women and girls - from all backgrounds and all walks of life - to embrace their beauty and to unconditionally love, nurture and nourish themselves." On her website, she goes on to say: "We want women to understand that they’re precious, priceless beings created by God - that they’re worthy, beautiful, exactly as they are right now!". These sentiments and the ethos of Heather's project are exactly in line with this blog and my Just As I Am challenge, which is one of the many reasons why I think Heather is so fab. You could spend hours on Heather's website but if you want to read her honest, moving story that charts her struggles with her image, weight and self-esteem and how she came to understand she was enough, just as she was, it's here.

Heather has followed her heart and followed her dreams in an inspirational way. Those dreams have taken her to some amazing places with stunning results that have impacted the lives of many. In 2009, she helped create the Tapestry of Dreams project that took 10 women from a poor community in Kwazul-Natal, a province of great beauty but also extreme poverty on the east coast of South Africa, and turned them into catwalk models, for a day. The aim of the project was, in Heather's words, to let the women's life "shine", to help them to see their true value and their worth. The women - some of them HIV positive, others carers of AIDS orphans or younger siblings - were chosen not only for their powerful stories but because they were actively engaged in their local community. They were taken to Johannesburg and given VIP treatment. They stayed in a top hotel, were pampered, had their nails and make-up done and were clothed in dresses designed exclusively for them by the likes of Vivianne Westwood. The women then took to the catwalk on a gala evening of music, fashion and African culture. Below is a beautiful, 10-minute promomotional video for Tapestry of Dreams, featuring Heather and some of the women.

There's also a step-by-step account of how the event was put together on this Tapestry of Dreams blog and a powerful photo documentary of the gala evening below:

Just writing this and remembering Heather speak about this project when I met her last year, I'm moved by her commitment, her compassion and her spirit. Take a look at her Beautiful Life website to see all the other inspiring activities she's involved in.

I met Heather in Africa last August. We were room mates for a week. We were both taking part in a one-week trip to Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, organised by Could You?, a New York-based non-profit organisation that takes professionals on a week-long immersion trip to Mozambique to help them discover ways in which they can use their gifts and talents to impact poverty, in Africa, at home or elsewhere in the world. Christine Garde, executive director of Could You?, is an amazing woman in her own right who's passionate about making the world a better place. She doesn't just talk the talk, she walks the walk. Likewise, Could You?'s Africa director Tracey Webster, who like Heather is a social entrepreneur, is bubbling with energy and ideas about how to bring about change and has already achieved so much in her 40 years.

On the Could You? trip, we were exposed to Mozambique's extreme poverty but also to great opportunity. As a journalist who'd reported from post-quake Haiti, post-tsunami Sri Lanka and who'd lived in Mexico and Brazil, I'd seen a lot of poverty, suffering and hardship and was probably a bit immune. But I still came away from that trip profoundly moved - moved by the energy and generosity of the Mozambicans who were trying to make a difference in whatever way they could, and moved, in a big way, by the experience of connecting at a deep level with the women on the trip through the sharing of our life stories - our hopes, our dreams, our joys and heartaches (Just adding here, after posting, that Could You? trips are generally mixed but ours turned out to be all women, despite efforts by Christine to get some men along!). It was that experience that opened my eyes to my own passion for storytelling, for telling my story and the stories of others in a way that hopefully, somehow, will help someone. It was probably that trip and that experience of connecting with so many fabulous women that prompted me, in a roundabout way, to start this blog. I may not be impacting world poverty today but what I'm passionate about is poverty of spirit, particularly amongst women. Just like Heather, I want to live my own life to the full - without the self-condemnation, self-doubt, negative self-talk and so on - and I'd love the same for others. That's my African dream.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Days 31 & 32: Patience is a virtue

Patience is the art of tolerating delay, implying self-control and forbearance, according to WikiAnswers. Patience is the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like, says, which goes on to say patience is the ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay. It is quiet, steady perseverance. Patience, according to Katherine Baldwin (that's me), is the act of waiting, of doing nothing instead of doing something, of sitting with uncertainty, with uncomfortable feelings, instead of acting to get rid of them.

No wonder I struggle to be patient. Someone, I'm not sure who, said: "Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can. Seldom found in woman, never found in man." Patience is seldom found in this woman, that's for sure.

I have never been one to wait around. I'd classify myself more as a 'human doing' rather than a 'human being'. I'd also call myself an 'adrenalin junkie'. That term doesn't sound very self-accepting or self-loving but I can't think of a better one and I seem to fit the description according to this article, What is an adrenalin junkie? What can you do if you are one?, or this adrenalin self-test, which includes classic questions such as do you plan and pace your project or leave it to the last minute and cram?

Now, I'm a journalist and you'll find plenty of adrenalin junkies in my profession. And is it necessarily a bad thing to leave certain things till the last minute? I'm a perfectionist, so give me a day to do a piece of writing and I'll spend a whole day on it, switching the words, changing the grammar, rethinking, reworking. But give me two hours and I'll get the work to you in two hours (or maybe two hours ten minutes!) and it probably won't be any worse than if I'd taken a day - sometimes better.

But what's more interesting to me is the reason why I'm an adrenalin junkie. One reason is habit. If I started holding my fork in my left hand at an early age, it's going to be a tough habit to crack. Same with adrenalin - if I've been running high on it for 30-odd years, then that's what I'll be used to. The problem is I tend to create high-stress situations in my life to induce that feeling of adrenalin - it could be from something as simple as always leaving the house ten minutes later than planned to staying up late at night buying Web hosting packages on the Internet, which later turn out to be the wrong ones.

So now you see where this is coming from. Yes, last night, in the true style of an impatient, must-have-it-now, adrenalin junkie, I got on my computer (against my self-imposed boundaries) and started to try to work out what to turn this blog into. I have a good idea but instead of letting my idea evolve over a bit more time, I decided I immediately needed to buy a domain name, set up a site and get it all sorted, on the spot. But, of course, as you may remember from Twittergate in my Day Three post, technology, late nights and me are not a good mix. As with my disastrous attempts to change my Twitter name (I deleted two accounts and ended up with the pesky underscore in @Just_AsIAm40!), my attempts to set up a new site went a little awry as I didn't read the small print, or actually the large print. I ploughed on through, credit card at the ready. Now what I did isn't a major disaster but it creates complications. It creates stress. And, as with Twittergate, it kept my mind occupied until the early hours of this morning, thinking about the various connotations of my new site and hosting package.

So, once again, I created a little crisis for myself, a distraction. That's my pattern, I admit it, I own it, I accept it, and I will try to remember - next time - to do my best to change it.

But back to why I do it. Well, physically it seems my body has grown accustomed to high adrenalin levels so it doesn't know what to do without them and it seems to send messages to my brain along the lines of 'Go on - create a crisis' that my brain dutifully follows. However, there's also a deeper side to it (isn't there always?). Distractions take me away from myself and my feelings. They stop me from sitting still and getting in touch with what's really going on. And, over the past few days, there have been some pretty painful feelings I've been wanting to avoid.

Yes, I'll admit the baby angst hit me hard. I think all the blogging and talking about babies in the last weeks really got to me. In a blog post the other day, I said my instinct tells me I will have a baby of my own but I guess the realisation hit me that I may not. And that's painful, as I think many women who've wanted children and haven't had them will agree. Inevitably, I've been asking myself a lot of questions and there've been a lot of 'what ifs?' racing around my head. But, as I've written before, there isn't much I can do about it today - as a single 40-year-old woman - other than run out and get myself pregnant (which I don't want to do) or just feel the feelings, let them go and get on with what's in front of me.

Fortunately, I'm by no means alone in this situation. Not only do I have a number of old (in the sense of long-standing) friends who are going through the same thing but I've also connected with a few women on the Web who are in a similar boat. Jody Day, a businesswoman, coach, speaker and writer has just launched Gateway Women, an organisation that aims to support, inspire and empower childfree women - to enable them to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And Doctor Paula Moore set up The Happy Pregnancy Project, a website that offers support for women over 35 who are trying to conceive. I came across these women through a 30-day challenge I'm part of called Screw Work Let's Play, based on the best-selling book of the same name by John Williams. Of course, true to form, I signed up for the challenge - in which you become part of an online community of 150 people around the world who support each other's creative ideas - when I had a particularly heavy workload from my freelancing business so I've had very little time to dedicate to it, apart from late last night! But it's been good to get me thinking about what next for this blog and it's been great for networking with some like-minded souls.

Ok, so I know this post is turning into an epic but before I go, a few body image-related articles to take a look at. If you have time, check out this blog by Natasha Devon of Body Gossip on eating disorders and the media. I love her conclusion: "In the end, there is no substitute for self-belief" - well said! Also, in this Cosmopolitan interview with Adele, the singer says she doesn't worry too much about what she eats.

And finally, a note on handstands. To get myself out of my own head and to give myself a break from work at lunchtime, I strolled to the park a few minutes from my home/office. Looking at the large open spaces and the lush green grass, I had an urge to do a few handstands. So I did. And a cartwheel. Yes, my wrists hurt a little and my back ached a bit (I'm not the gymnast I used to be - 30 years ago) but it was a lot of fun. And everything looked different upside down. I may be 40 but I think I could still hold my own in a handstand competition. Many of you may not know what this next bit means and I haven't a clue where it comes from but .... Florietta anyone?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Day 30: Anxious girls, phenomenal women

I've given some insight into my own girlhood angst in my last few blog posts. I couldn't pinpoint when I began to worry about my shape and size. I was young but I think I'd definitely made it out of primary school. Today, however, it seems body obsession is starting younger and younger. In this Daily Mail article, entitled 'I peeked into my six-year-old's diary ... and realised just how early girls learn to hate their bodies', Angela Epstein reads her six-year-old daughter's journal, only to find comments about how fat and ugly young Sophie feels. Personally, I'm a little concerned that Angela is reading her daughter's diary and even more concerned she's posting a picture of it in the Daily Mail. How's Sophie going to feel about that? Still, it's also very concerning that her daughter is having these thoughts at such a young age. But Sophie is not alone. It seems there's enough evidence of body dissatisfaction amongst primary school children to fill a book. Body Image in the Primary School, by behaviour specialists and education consultants Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland, was published in March this year. In it, they say girls as young as six are cutting down on what they eat to be thinner and three quarters of 10- and 11-year-olds would like to change their appearance. In the book, the authors offer help for teachers to address these issues in the classroom and to try to nip body obsession in the bud.

After writing the above, I've decided this is all a little depressing and as I have very little time to write anything more cheery myself today, here's a poem by poet, author, actress and activist Maya Angelou called Phenomenal Woman that celebrates real women who do not conform to beauty stereotypes. I particularly like the reference to 'inner mystery' and the freedom this phenomenal woman seems to enjoy in relation to her body. She's obviously very comfortable in her own skin - something I'm aspiring to be through this Lenten blog and beyond.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me

Monday, 11 April 2011

Day 29: Every body bathing in Bath

So my blog post from Friday - 'Adios to arm envy' - opened the floodgates in my mind. Just as well I'd resolved to have a mobile phone- and computer-free weekend or I would have blogged for Britain over the past few days. Of course, I can't remember all the thoughts that came up but I do remember having some flashbacks to some painful moments in my teenage years: picking up the clumps of hair from my pink bedroom carpet, feeling dizzy after netball because I'd barely eaten all day and, after I'd put on a bit of weight, buying clothes a size too small in the hope I'd slim into them. I also clearly remember a comment from a teacher after I'd come home from a three-week student exchange visit to Spain, aged 16. "What happened to you?" the teacher asked as she pointed to my newly acquired curves. I'd been so unhappy and lonely on that trip that I'd done some serious overeating and my weight gain was noticeable. Kids can be cruel, but teachers can be too.

Through my late teens, university and beyond, far too much time was devoted to trying to lose that excess weight and too much headspace was taken up with thoughts about my 'imperfect' looks. By then, though, I was trapped in a cycle of starving, over-exercising, binge-eating, binge-drinking and body obsession. I should add here that those years weren't all bad - I had some great times, made wonderful friends and had amazing experiences. But it's sad that so much of my focus was on my appearance and it's sad that my self-esteem was so low. It's equally sad and worrying to think there are other young girls, teenagers and women of all ages who are going through the same thing and are maybe trapped in a similar destructive cycle. The latest Girl Guiding UK survey, which I've mentioned previously in this blog, reveals how important appearance is to young girls today and how dissatisfied many are with the way they look. This 45-second video encapsulates the survey's findings:

Moving on to the topic of hair, I didn't mention in my last post that I had a recurrence of the hair-thinning nightmare around 36 or 37. I include this here not because I relish exposing myself further but in case someone who reads this is struggling with something similar and is looking for answers. I remember what a difficult time it was for me. My friends kept reassuring me there was nothing wrong with my hair but I could feel it thinning and, as if that wasn't bad enough, I had breakouts of acne. I'd finally found some peace and balance around my weight and eating and had let go of some other unhealthy behaviours so why was I looking worse than ever? What was going on? And why me? I remember the string of doctors, herbalists, naturopaths and acupuncturists I saw. Finally, after deciding I didn't want to take the variety of drugs being offered by the medical profession, I found a kinesiology practitioner who dosed me up on Omega 3 and a few other natural supplements to balance my hormones and after a long while, my skin largely cleared up and I no longer felt I was losing my hair. Through my various appointments and research, I discovered the thinning hair and acne were linked to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that comes with all kinds of horrible symptoms like hair loss from places where you really don't want to lose it to hair gain in places you'd much prefer it didn't grow. Oh the joys of being a woman!

But back, after much meandering, to the title of this post: Every body bathing in Bath. So I spent Thursday night and Friday in the beautiful city of Bath in Somerset, home to the UK's only natural hot springs, if Wikipedia can be trusted. I'd never been to Bath before and was absolutely astonished at how beautiful it was. I was also astonished at the fact I'd never visited despite having lived in Oxford for three years when I was younger and in London for nine. But then I'm one of those people who could tell you the geography of Mexico, Brazil or Australia but who doesn't have a clue where Somerset is in relation to Oxfordshire (I do now!). Bath has actually been on my list of places to visit but it's taken me a very long time so I was really pleased I'd decided to stay the night there, despite the hotel being a little expensive. I was also delighted I'd booked a massage at the Thermae Bath Spa on Thursday evening - despite that being a little expensive too. I don't have a steady income right now and am feeling rather financially insecure but sometimes, as the L'Oreal advert says, "You're worth it".

So I sat in the spa's open-air rooftop pool until 9:30 pm on Thursday and went back there on Friday - a day of glorious sunshine - and sat in it for about an hour and a half. Yes, I came out a little shrivelled and sun-dazed but it was a lovely experience. This was pure relaxation and recreation. There was a great atmosphere - mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, groups of girls or older women, couples, and the odd sole bather (like myself) - all in a bubbling warm pool together. And it was also a great spot to ponder the topic of this blog - body image and self-acceptance.

Most of the bathers were women, women of all shapes, sizes and ages. Some were obviously very comfortable in their own skin and happy to walk around in bikinis. Others kept their bath robes on as long as possible before slipping into the water. I remarked how we are all so different in body shape and how we all put weight on in different places. If I gain weight, my upper arms and face are generally the first places to fill out. For other women, it's the waist or thighs. So why is it so hard for some of us (not all us, of course) to accept our bodies the way they are and to cherish them as unique and individual. Why have I spent so many years wanting any other body except for my own? I'm 100 percent Anglo-Saxon, after all, so as hard as I try, I'll never have the arms of Michelle Obama.

But as I've mentioned before in this blog, I know for myself that my obsessions about my body are manifestations of a deeper unease that goes right to my core. And that's where the healing has to happen and I'm pleased to say, it already is.

Last weekend also prompted some more thoughts about 'the baby gap', which I wrote about on Day 22. I was away in the beautiful Cotswolds with a group of men and women all around my age. Some of the women had had children, some when they were young but others later in life. Others of us were still waiting for it to happen or wondering if it would. I'd say all the females fell into the category of 'career women'. Our discussions prompted some thoughts: should women my age and older been made more aware of our drop in fertility after 35? Should this have been laid out to us more clearly at school or at other key moments in our lives? Or had we in fact been aware of this but had chosen to ignore it and get on with our careers? Even if we'd had all the facts, would it have made any difference? Personally, I'm aware I had a vague notion that fertility declined with age but I don't think I ever really stopped to think about it. But if I had, would I have done anything about it? I did have a moment last night of deep regret about some of the choices I'd made over the years but then I realised this morning that regret about the past won't change my present or future. It will, of course, give me something else to fret and obsess about and I certainly don't need anything new. As I pondered all this during an early morning sit in the park, I was reminded of a Bible verse I find really comforting: 'Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!'

I was also heartened this morning by the news a former colleague had just given birth to a baby girl at 45. Once again, I thought, the whole baby thing comes down to acceptance and trust - trust that it will happen or trust that I'll be OK if it doesn't. And once again, I can make the most of my freedom and gladly accept an invite from a woman my age who is also child-free (sounds better than childless) to go camping and mountain biking next weekend without having to think about who's going to look after the little ones. 

Before I sign off, I was writing on Day 24 about Australia's Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image - a great initiative but one that unfortunately has failed to have a huge impact on the fashion, advertising or media industries. Now it seems Britain has taken some small steps to regulate part of the advertising industry, publishing some new guidelines for advertisers of cosmetics. I haven't had a chance to read through all the guidelines but according to this article on they include the use of misleading eyelash inserts, the excessive use of hair extensions in hair ads, the use of fake nails in nail adverts and re-touching pictures to remove fine lines and wrinkles, fly-away hair and skin blemishes, if the products advertised are claiming to help those issues. Once again, these are guidelines and as we've seen with Australia's voluntary code, industries are reluctant to change. But maybe, eventually, there'll be fewer advertisements on our TVs like Cheryl Cole's ad for L'Oreal and maybe there'll be fewer young girls (and 40-year-old women for that matter) bemoaning the fact their hair doesn't look like Cheryl Cole's on the TV ad - because the truth is even Cheryl Cole's hair doesn't look like Cheryl Cole's hair on the TV ad.

And finally, how's this for comic timing: as I was finishing up this section on Cheryl Cole's fake TV hair, I noticed I'm now being followed on Twitter by a company that sells organic hair extensions. Should I give it a go? Never say never but for now, I think I'll stick with my own hair, just as it is.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Days 27 & 28: Adios to arm envy

So this picture looks so unlike me it's funny. The only thing that's close to reality is the colour of the scooter (it's a perfect match, in fact). But what isn't that funny is that for a good chunk of my life I really wanted to look something like this. I particularly coveted two of her attributes: her super slim arms and her long, blonde hair - the kind of hair that would bounce along behind you. I got over wanting to be blonde a good while ago but I've never stopped wanting the long, thick, glossy, TV-ad kind of hair. And as for the arms, arm envy has been a big part of my life. I've often been jealous of my Latina friends' tiny, toned arms or wished I had Michelle Obama's long, elegant arms. (The First Lady's toned arms originally caused quite a stir on the other side of the Atlantic, apparently.)

So, I realised last weekend that my Lenten self-acceptance efforts hadn't yet reached my upper arms and it was about time I included them. This realisation came when I was wandering around London's Spitalfields Market with a friend, browsing the clothes stalls. I spotted a purple dress that I thought would have suited for work. But I didn't try it on - it had short sleeves. I could wear something under it, I said to my friend, a long-sleeved stretch top perhaps, but she frowned at the suggestion - why would I want to do that? Well, because I've always disliked my upper arms and have avoided exposing them wherever possible. Now, I know this is partly irrational and has a lot to do with perfectionism. These thoughts belong to that familiar pattern of always finding something to obsess about to distract me from other, more painful stuff. These are the types of thoughts that have kept me trapped for many years - thinking I won't wear that dress until I'm a particular size or shape, or I'll wait until I look like Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, Kate Moss or whoever, before I start living life to the full. (As we know, these thoughts seem to be pretty common amongst women - 30 percent of women today would trade at least a year of their life to achieve their ideal body weight and shape, according to this research.)

I also think, however, my arm hang-up is partly rational - my arms are ever so slightly out of proportion with the rest of my body. A dress, blouse or jacket will fit me everywhere else but sometimes it'll feel tight or get stuck on my arms. Just like some women struggle to do the zip up over their calves on knee-high boots, I sometimes struggle to get things over my arms. So what's the answer? Well, I think it's twofold. Firstly, I can do something about the way I feel about my arms. Michelle Obama may have good genes but those arms also look like they've lifted a few light weights or swam a few lengths, and I can do that too. Whenever I do some arm exercises, I notice slight changes and feel better about myself so I think part of the answer is physical - it's about taking small steps to change the things I can. The other side of the battle is mental - learning to accept them just as they are, as a conscious act, on a daily basis. So that's my challenge for the rest of this Lenten period and the rest of my life, of course. Because self-acceptance isn't just for Lent, it's for life!

On the subject of body hang-ups, I might as well talk about the other one: my hair. Negative thoughts about the state of my hair have been some of the hardest ones to fight, or surrender, this Lent. There is a history to this, and it's kind of painful, emotionally, but there's bound to be some irrational thoughts and feelings in there also. When I was younger, I was never happy with my hair, just as I was never happy with my appearance in general. I think this is pretty common - if our hair is curly we want it to be straight, if it's blonde we want it to be dark. But those thoughts and feelings are particularly stark for young girls who have low self-esteem or are self conscious about their appearance. I'd say that was me when I was younger, although I may have hid it well by being outwardly confident and capable. I remember being very angry at the fact that every time we played Charlie's Angels I had to play the one with dark hair and my blonde friend got to play the blonde. I wanted to play the blonde!

But of course we never truly appreciate anything until it's gone and so my dissatisfaction with the colour of my hair paled into significance when my hair started to thin and its texture changed when I was around 15. Now I really had something to worry and obsess about. I could blame what happened on a bad home perm but I think the real reason was that I started to undereat around that age so I think it was hormonal. My body wanted to grow up but it didn't have enough food or fat to do so. I'm no doctor, this is just how I see it. Maybe it was always going to happen, who knows. Soon, though, my undereating turned to overeating, but that didn't make the hair grow back. It just meant I was now bigger than I was, terribly self-conscious about my body and with thinner, frizzy hair.

I'll never forget the excruciating moment when, as a teenager, I was heading in to a changing room at a clothes store in Liverpool and two girls went in to the cubicle next to me. They'd seen me and I heard them say, "Isn't that Katherine? What's happened to her? She used to be so slim. And her hair, it's gone all frizzy." That was my recollection, anyway. And I remember the other school friend who said, "You've got a really pretty face. Shame about the hair." Of course, we all know kids are cruel and maybe some children on the receiving end of such comments can brush them off. I certainly didn't. I'm 40 and I still remember them! I can also remember the restaurant owner on the Greek Island who said, squeezing my upper arms, "pretty face, shame about the body". That Greek trip came after a summer I'd spent working at Haagen Dazs ice cream parlour in Oxford. I ate ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner and ended up feeling pretty unhappy about my weight and my looks.

So, overweight and with frizzy hair - that definitely wasn't how God had intended me to look. I felt like I'd been given something pretty reasonable to work with but that I'd ruined it. So my mentality was that because I didn't look perfect, or anything like it, why bother? Why look after my hair, why stop binge-drinking or binge-eating? Why wear nice clothes or get a good hair cut? It took me many years to recover some vanity or healthy self-care and I thank Mexico and some of my Mexican girlfriends for reintroducing vanity into my life. But then I went to the opposite extreme - diet pills, over-exercising, body obsession etc. It was only in my early 30s that I realised that my eating behaviours and lots of my other behaviours weren't healthy and I set out to get help, to find out why I was behaving as I was and to learn some real self-care - including eating healthily, exercising moderately and getting regular hair cuts. In the case of my hair, it's also meant seeking advice to make sure I'm doing what I can to keep my hormones balanced and my hair healthy. Omega 3 has worked wonders. 

My growing self-esteem, however, doesn't mean that every time I take off my scooter helmet I don't wish I had long luscious locks that would effortlessly rearrange themselves as I shake my head (like on TV!). But I'm realising it's not going to happen so I'd be better off cherishing what I have. So, today, I'm doing my best to say thank you God for my hair and please take away the self-obsession, the body obsession, and replace it with greater self-acceptance, peace, contentment and a desire to live and enjoy life, just as I am.

Who would I rather be? I'll stick with me.
P.S. This blog is for Days 27 & 28, today and tomorrow, as from now on, this weekend is about self-care, relaxation, sunshine, friends, fun and laughter. Enjoy.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Days 25 & 26: Looking good naked

So, I feel I've neglected my blog this week but there wasn't much I could do about it. Well, actually, there was but it would have been totally out of character - I could have planned my time and my workload better. That's something I'm definitely working on but I'm not there yet. I'm hoping my new planning tools will help me - a magnetic white board on which I'm going to stick a big monthly diary that'll be coloured in and scribbled on with time blocked out for work, fun, exercise, communing with nature etc. Let's just hope I manage to drill the board to the wall soon - drilling isn't my forte but I'm determined to give it a go this time, and without supervision!

For today, however, I'll just have to accept that I had to neglect my blog a little this week to get my other work done. However, through that work, I have learned or been reminded of something - namely, that my anxiety around my ability to do a particular work project gets in my way and takes up my time much more than the actual doing of the work. Maybe when I take on my next project I can start from a position of self-belief and greater confidence in my abilities as well as an understanding that striving for perfection is a fool's game.

Today's post will be pretty short and sweet also - I hope to post something longer and a little more personal tomorrow. I'm in Somerset today (part of the work project) and it definitely is summer here. The sun is out, the fields are a glorious green and I've seen several people wandering around in shorts. Sometimes, getting out of London and into the great English countryside is such a tonic. Notice I'm not revealing my precise whereabouts. Ever since my Mum told me about the thriller she'd read in which the victim was stalked by her attacker via her Facebook and Twitter feeds I've been a little nervous about revealing my exact location!

Before I head off for my massage - yes, I've actually booked a massage (a rare event) - I just want to alert any Londoners who might be interested in taking their clothes of in the interests of bodily self acceptance about an event taking place tomorrow. Spirited Bodies was founded by three life models - Morimda, Lucy and Esther - who, as a by-product of their work, feel comfortable with their nudity and who now use art to empower other women to feel the same. As it says on their website, "it is wonderful to be comfortable being oneself", but so few women feel that way, partly because of a culture that tells us we should aspire to a certain image of beauty or body size. Tomorrow evening, that's Friday April 8, Spirited Bodies is inviting women (and one man it seems!) to take part in a life modelling event, creating Renaissance masterpieces like Rubens' 'The Three Graces' or Titian's 'The Seven Ages of Woman'. The event is entitled 'The Ages of Woman' and women of all, shapes, ages, sizes and colours are invited to attend. I can't say I've ever tried life modelling and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it for myself, so I'll defer to Spirited Bodies greater knowledge of its potential benefits, as stated on their website: "Life modelling can be beneficial to those overcoming body confidence issues, to women accepting and loving their bodies following pregnancy, illness, trauma, abuse or being over-sexualised. It is a powerful way to get in touch with yourself through meditation and being an inspiration for art." While I can see the logic in that I think I'll stick to my massage for today, but hoping all those who attend the Spirited Bodies event leave feeling empowered and more comfortable in their own skin.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Day 24: Upping the ante Down Under

It's been yet another long day of work (I'm definitely out of practice!) but I justed wanted to highlight an interesting campaign I noticed - thanks to The Beautiful You website.

It seems like the Australians are getting serious when it comes to the fight against negative body image, particularly amongst young people. I've only just become aware of this - these topics weren't really on my journalistic radar last year - but in June 2010 the Australian government released a Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image for the fashion, media and advertising industries.

The code suggests that the industries use a diversity of body shapes, sizes and ethnicities, that advertising campaigns support positive and healthy body image behaviour and that they stop propagating unrealistic images of beauty through digital manipulation of photography. The code also advises the industries to use models of healthy weights, to only use models over 16 to model adult clothing and it advises retailers to stock a wide variety of sizes. That's all pretty cool. I'm not sure if any other country has anything similar although I've written earlier in this blog about the Campaign for Body Confidence that the UK's Equality Minister Lynne Featherstone and member of parliament Jo Swinson run, with similar aims. 

It seems, however, that the media, fashion and advertising industries Down Under aren't paying much attention to the new guidelines, showing that change will take a while to come in an arena where so many people make so much money out of marketing beauty products, diet plans, botox and so on. To try to speed things up, campaigners have launched this online petition to Australian Minister of Youth Peter Garrett, calling on him to pressure the industries to do more to promote positive body image. The petition is organised by the Equality Rights Alliance, a network that advocates for women's equality and diversity, and it closes tomorrow. So if there are any Australians reading this and you'd like to add your name, follow the links and sign up.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Day 23: Baby or no baby

Blogging at the end of a busy work day is probably a really bad idea. Rambling and incoherent thoughts, spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and the disclosure of information I really should have kept to myself are just some of the potential pitfalls. So I'll keep this one very brief.

Firstly, a small addition to Saturday's blog. I wrote in my baby gap post that women who've never given birth will never know what it feels like to do so - even if they do end up loving their adopted children as if they were their own. I omitted to say that, likewise, women who have had children will never know what it feels like for those who don't and really want to. It's impossible to put ourselves in each other's shoes, as much as we might try to in an effort to understand, empathise or sympathise. I was also reminded that I'd noted recently that there was no point in me hankering after a baby while suffering from lower back pain and doing very little about it. Watching a heavily pregnant mother reach down to pick up her small son yesterday evening - without any signs of painful twinges - made me think I'd better get back to Pilates if I ever want to do the same. But then I'd better get back to Pilates anyway, baby or no baby, if I want a pain-free future (I've corrected this bit - I posted it as 'baby or no body'. What did I say about mistakes?!).

For the rest of this post, I'll let others speak for me. So here's an article by writer, teacher and speaker Courtney E. Martin entitled 'Botox, bingeing, bullying and breast ironing: we must stop the war on women's bodies' in which she calls for a new 'body image activism' to challenge a wave of body hate that's spreading around the globe. Courtney coordinated the Endangered Species women's summit in New York last month and is part of an international campaign of the same name. I've written a fair bit about the Endangered Species events on this blog and have just published this short feature about them in Six Magazine, a new ethical fashion magazine.

And that's it, short and sweet, and hopefully not too rambling.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Day 22: The baby gap

I wasn't going to post today, it being the weekend and me trying to practise balance and all that. But then I love writing on my blog and really felt moved - by some feelings that came up last night - to write today, so here I am. I'll make sure I do lots of balanced things for the rest of my day and weekend, promise. Sometimes, too, the writing just flows. At other times, my thoughts are more jumbled - I think yesterday's post is an example of that or maybe that's my perfectionism talking. I hope I made some sense with my musings on truth.

So, the baby gap. No, I'm not referring to the junior section of the U.S. clothing store and nor am I talking about the period of time some parents deliberately leave between having their various offspring. I'm using the word 'gap' here more in the context of that familiar warning on the London Tube - 'Mind the Gap', meaning watch out for the void, the chasm, the space where there's something missing. So what's this all about? Well, you guessed it, I'm talking about the absence of babies or children.

I was out last night with a delightful group of ladies having a lovely time over chocolate brownies and pink fizz to celebrate a birthday. Now, I've learned over the past few years the futility of comparing my life to anyone else's ('compare and despair', 'the grass is always greener' and all that). But it's actually not that easy to turn off the feelings. I'd say the majority of the women, or perhaps all, were younger than me, some by 10 or 15 years, and several were already well into motherhood, with one or two babies. Those who didn't have babies were in their 20s. Now this isn't to say that I didn't have a lovely time and wouldn't do it again in a flash but inevitably - as a 40-year-old single woman without children - some feelings come up when I'm in that situation or they surface when I get home. I think I do a much better job today than I ever did in the past of accepting I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be - and this blog is indeed about self-acceptance, in all areas - but that doesn't stop me questioning certain things or pondering my future.

I guess the big question is will I ever have a child of my own, naturally, and if I don't what will that feel like, emotionally and physically? Will it bother me? Will I just move on or will I have a lot of feelings to 'work through'? Will I try IVF? Will I adopt a beautiful child and love it as though I'd given birth? I guess the wonderful and scary thing about the future is we can't predict it. Deep down, I have to say, I do trust I'll have a child naturally but I have no real reason to believe that, other than an instinct and a sense that my body, inside, is pretty young and healthy. I guess I've also learned that there isn't much point pondering this question for too long or worrying about it but then I don't think I'd be human if I didn't ponder it a little, from time to time.

At this stage in my life, I can say I know women and men in a whole range of situations in relation to babies and children - mothers of many, women who have deliberately and contentedly opted out of having any, women who are struggling to conceive naturally, others who are struggling to conceive through IVF, others who have been successful with IVF. I know single women my age and older, some who long to have children and some who have accepted they won't. Some who accepted that fact with ease, others who had to work through feelings of regret, bitterness, anger even. I know single mothers and fathers, parents of children with disabilities, parents who've gone through the unimaginable heartache of losing a child. I know 'miracle' mothers, those women who've been told they could never have babies but then suddenly got pregnant or others who had the same experience but then sadly miscarried. I know women who've terminated pregnancies earlier in their lives only to wonder if that was their only chance. It's an emotional rollercoaster just writing about it - imagine what it's like to live it! I also know women who've adopted or taken a child into their care. A friend who's bringing up her natural daughter on her own recently commented to me that I would never know what it felt like to have a child naturally if I never did. I guess that's very true. But then another friend who's become the legal guardian of a beautiful girl told me she didn't think she could love the child any more even if she had given birth to her. It's as though she was her own.

I can't say I particularly know where I'm going with all this but it was on my heart so I wanted to write it down. I honestly think I would feel a sense of loss if I didn't conceive and give birth. It just seems such a natural thing to do. But nor am I under any illusions (or maybe I am because I really don't think you know what it's like until you're actually in it) about how difficult it is, at times, to be a mother or father of a young baby or bring up children, particularly as a single parent. I definitely wouldn't be sitting here writing this blog if I had young children, that's for sure - but then am I writing this blog to fill the baby gap? Or maybe I would be writing this blog as the little one slept.

I have so many other questions related to this fascinating topic. For example, do men feel the same? If men without children are hanging out with a group of fathers, do they feel a sense of loss? Do they ask themselves, will it happen to me? I guess it depends on the man. Just as it'll depend on the woman. And here's another topic I often discuss with friends my age: is our constant searching for a 'purpose' - a fulfilling and satisfying career or a mission in life - a product of the fact that we're in our late 30s or 40s and don't have children to worry about, something that would have happened far less often if we'd been born 20 years ago. But then I think women and men who do have children often ask themselves the same questions, around their careers or their purpose or where their life is heading. And of course, there's the moment when the children leave home after all those years. I've probably also been prompted to write about these topics after catching some of Jeremy Vine's Parenting Week on BBC Radio 2 (there are some advantages to working from home).

But going back to my own story, I also try to hold on to the fact that everything happens for a reason and that God knows what he's doing. Unlike some of the lovely ladies I was with last night, I don't think I'd have made a very good mother in my 20s or early 30s. The binge-drinking, overeating, undereating, overexercise, overwork, compulsive partying, risk taking etc would have left very little time for good parenting. Or would it? Maybe having a child would have changed everything, but then I'll never know.

Let me just say here that I hope I don't sound flippant in addressing these issues. I wouldn't describe myself as someone who wanted a baby just for the experience, or for the sake of it, or because I believe it's my right as a woman (although I admit there's probably a bit of that going on, particularly the last point). I think I do understand the responsibilities that come with having a child and the potential for harm if my reasons for doing so are selfish. But as I said above, it feels like something I'm drawn towards and that I'd miss if it didn't happen.

So the conclusion I've come to after all these musings is that, although I'm bound to think about it now and then, there's not much point in 'minding the baby gap'. I can write this blog because I don't have little ones running around me. I can jump on my bike and cycle over to Camden to meet friends for coffee. I can find a park to sit in and soak up the spring sunshine and I can plan a trip to a friend's wedding in New York in May. I guess, like anything else in life, it comes down to appreciating where you are and what you do have rather than hankering after something else, which ties in nicely with the topic of accepting our bodies as they are instead of waiting until we look like Cindy Crawford (or whoever our role model is) to start living our lives to the full. God willing, I won't always have just myself to look after, but in the meantime I can do my best to enjoy the freedom that comes with being 40 and not having children.