Check the label

Attention: Food labelling is very important. Particularly in times such as these when food allergies and sensitivities to common ingredients abound. I count myself lucky that, although I am allergic to things such as pollen, dust mites, and (of all things) horses, I have never had any food-related reactions. I did poison myself with under-cooked chicken once, but that doesn’t count. At times, however, the warnings on food labels can seem to go a bit too far – for example, the milk in my fridge doesn’t pretend to be anything other than dairy milk. Its ingredients list consists of only milk. Yet still, tucked away near the storage instructions is the official allergy advice: CONTAINS MILK. I feel like this has less to do with the intelligence of the average milk consumer, and more to do with the corporation’s healthy respect of an increasingly litigious society, but still… a tad excessive, perhaps. Even so, they didn’t go as far as the set of magic tricks my brother had as a child. The set contained a wand, a top hat, and several magic tricks, and the box was adorned with images of a little boy demonstrating how fun they all were. The fine print on three sides said ‘Instructions included’. The fourth side instead had the words, ‘Little boy not included’.

It is one of my chief delights in life when things don’t take themselves too seriously.

But there is another kind of labelling that can be hard not to take seriously. This is the kind that we apply to ourselves and others. I’m not referring here to conference name-tags, or that time I took my daughter to work and she plastered me with stick-it notes that said ‘park’ (she really wanted to go to the park, alright?). Literal labelling I can, for the most part, get on board with. It’s social labelling that I find a bit more difficult to swallow.

I have been thinking about this recently as I reflect on where I am in life, and how different it is to anything I could have expected ten years ago. I would never have imagined, for example, that any of the following terms might apply to me:

  • single mother
  • mentally ill
  • ex-wife
  • bisexual
  • divorcee
  • lover

Now, these are all terms that could be applied to me, but they aren’t necessarily terms I apply to myself. Not because of any negative association but because, for a range of reasons, I don’t necessarily identify with all of them. For some, it’s because of my preconceptions about what these things look like: in my mind, I still see a divorcee as a glamorous, Bacall-esque woman, drinking a martini brought by her butler, while staring out over an empty swimming pool (don’t even ask). For others, it’s because I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to wear the label: do flings, crushes and trysts ‘qualify’ me to be called bi, when I’ve never had to deal with phobic reactions? Does my anxiety ‘count’ as mental illness, when I’ve managed thus far without prescription medication? And for still others, I feel like the label does apply, but others have disagreed: someone once challenged me on whether I was a ‘single mother’, based on the fact that my daughter’s dad and I share care arrangements. That person conceptualised single mothers as those with zero support/involvement from the child’s father. Being single and a mother wasn’t enough, in his eyes, to make me a ‘single mother’.

I could go on, picking apart my by-no-means-exhaustive list. But the point is, the labels that could be applied to me by others, and the labels I apply to myself, aren’t necessarily the same. Or they might be the same, but have a subtly different meaning. And the lesson is, there is an element of arbitrary compartmentalisation that comes with social labelling, so we don’t need to take it too seriously after all. Much like walking out of an office labelled as a ‘park’.

The labels I have mentioned so far have been based on circumstance, so while there is an emotive element to them, they are relatively ‘objective’. Certain other labels we apply are grounded in value judgements, and they are far more insidious – particularly when we apply them to ourselves. These are often simple adjectives, and can start out as self-deprecating: “Oh, I’m such an idiot!”; “Ha, I’m such a clutz!”. Over time, however, these comments become part of our self-talk and can really have an impact on our self-esteem. I have noticed my daughter, at the ripe old age of seven, starting to say things like, “I’m so bad at drawing”. She isn’t, she’s just comparing herself to the adults around her who have had twenty-five more years than her to work on their fine motor skills. I will be so sad if she convinces herself that she’s ‘bad’ at drawing, when it’s something she loves to do.

These labels, like those on certain jam jars, can be very hard to remove once applied. And even ‘positive’ labels can cause a sticky mess. I carry a massive fear of failure from being told as a kid I would achieve great things, and I could be whatever I wanted. Somehow, my younger self turned these encouragements into a crippling terror of letting everybody down, to the point where it was easier for me not to try anything new or challenging. Because if you don’t try, you can’t fail. This is something I have overcome substantially in the last couple of years, but it still feeds my epic procrastination skills.

Social labelling is a useful tool. It helps us circumscribe our identities and allows us to identify with and against others. But, like any other tool, it should be used thoughtfully. We should strive to use social labelling, of ourselves and of others, like food labelling: with the aim to prevent harm, not to inflict it.

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ANZAC bikkies – something to chew over

April 25th in Australia is ANZAC Day – a holiday to commemorate the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces (for more info, check out: https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/anzac/anzac-tradition/)

There is something unique about the absurdity of celebrating the absolutely horrific circumstances of the Gallipoli landing and what followed with oatmeal cookies. There has been some discussion of ‘Australian values’ in the media here recently, and to me this absurdity seems to come as close as anything else to a summation of the national character. But despite spending a lovely, floury afternoon supervising my daughter and bff’s son baking Anzacs, the history of biscuit is not what’s been on my mind.

I have mixed feelings about ANZAC day. While I have the utmost gratitude and respect for the brave souls who have made, and are making, unbounded sacrifices for us to enjoy the freedoms we so often take for granted, I can’t abide the romanticisation and glorification of war. I find the willingness of our government to continually engage in atrocities at home and overseas absolutely disgraceful, and the increasing normalisation of fear-mongering and falsely inflated nationalism make me heartsick and tired.

But, as we again teeter globally on the brink of g*d-knows-what, I think that days like this provide a vital opportunity for reflection, to consider how and why certain things have come to pass, and at what cost. And to plan the changes we can each actively make to build a better future, or any future at all.

#lestweforget

Salad Days

I’m a pretty big fan of salad, particularly if someone else makes it for me. Usually, even if it’s a bit average, a salad is crunchy and tasty, and gives you the satisfaction of knowing it’s good for you. But the other day, I made a really bad one. It should have been delicious. It had all the yummy ingredients – chargrilled capsicum, walnuts, fetta, pear, rocket. But for some reason it was just gross. Maybe I overcooked or under-seasoned something. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for the soggy bitter-sweetness of it. I went back to it again and again over the course of a few days, and every time it was nasty. Still, I persisted. I hate throwing away food even more than I hated the salad. And in the end I got through it. Well, most of it. I did feed some to an unsuspecting friend, and some to the worms.

This got me thinking about ‘my salad days, when I was green in judgement’ (Shakespeare quote!) and some of the choices I have made or been effected by that have led me to the point I am now at. I am currently single, and have been for longer than at any other point since my first teen romance. It hasn’t been all that long in the scheme of things – less than a year, in fact – but it has been long enough for me to wonder if this might be a long-term arrangement, and to consider how I feel about that.

When I left my husband, I was so traumatised by the last leg of our marriage that I wanted to be single for an extended period. I wanted time to go through the grieving process, to figure my sh*t out. It didn’t last long. For the first time in my life, I felt free to do what most sensible people do in their teens and early twenties: explore, try things out, fool around. I felt liberated, and unafraid. So I powered through a couple of relationships and casual romances, and I learned a lot about what I wanted and didn’t want, and I hurt people I genuinely cared for, and I successfully avoided the grief and hurt I was carrying. I packaged it up and hid it away under stories of an amicable separation, and joy in my newfound freedom, and stress from work and study, and a myriad of other things. And there it waited, ever so patiently.

I don’t express negative emotion easily. I think I’m better at it than I used to be, but my instinctive reaction to anger, frustration, jealousy, whatever, is to deny it. This is partly to do with my risk-averse nature (confrontation = risk), and partly to do with a lack of modelling when I was growing up. Overt expression of anger was not welcome in my familial home – our tradition was to repress negative emotion into passive aggression and the silent treatment. There were very few visible fights, and there were fewer visible apologies. I remember being at a friend’s place when I was about 9, when her parents had a fight about who should have turned off the kettle. One of them was on the toilet, the other was laying down, but they each thought the other could have got to the kitchen quicker, and the whole neighbourhood heard about it. I can remember pausing in the game we were playing and asking my friend if her parents were alright. She looked at me as if I was crazy, shrugged and said, “Yeah – they’re just having a fight.”

I felt so sorry for her. I was sure her parents were moments away from a divorce (still a bad word, when I was a kid). And I remember feeling so glad that my parents never fought. Of course, I didn’t realise at the time that no fighting didn’t mean no anger or frustration. In any relationship, there is going to be those things. But in my home, growing up, they were kept very tightly lidded. This left me with quite an impressive talent for setting aside negative feeling, and carrying on as if everything is fine. I’m sure I’ve written about this ‘skill’ before – it’s something I will be unlearning for the rest of my days.**

Last year, when my most recent relationship ended very unexpectedly, I decided to be actively single. I thought it would be good for me to be alone for an extended period, even after my heartache had eased. On some level, I knew that I needed time and space to process all the feels I had set aside for so long. I promptly developed a massive crush and used it as a cheerful distraction for the next six months. When that petered out, I was finally left to face the prospect of being actually, properly, single. Probably for a long time. Possibly for good. And it was then that I rediscovered that carefully hidden package of bleargh, mouldering like a forgotten bag of lettuce in the crisper.

Over the last couple of years, it has grown somewhat. Parts are condensed, compounded. There are new lumps and bumps to it. It is bulging at the seams. Bits of it have begun leaking out at inconvenient moments, causing me to cry, a lot, for no apparent reason. I have started having panic attacks again, waking in the night to the sound of my racing pulse, unable to get back to sleep. I have spent years distracting myself, allowing myself to ignore all these unprocessed feelings. I can’t do that anymore. I want to, I find it much more pleasant, but my body/brain won’t let me. These days, even when I’m having a great time and everything is going well, I can feel that bundle pressing against the edge of my mind. At first, it terrified me. I was a mess. But now, after a few months, I’ve grown used to it being there. I have taken steps to manage it – I booked a holiday, I went on a silent meditation retreat, I’m more actively managing my workload. I am working on acknowledging the presence of this bundle, without letting it overwhelm me. I am trying to co-exist with it. I know I can’t unpack all this history on my own, so I have enlisted professional help – in a few weeks I will start seeing a psychologist again. I am not looking forward to sifting through the detritus of my mind, but I know it needs to be done. Like eating a walnut and pear salad you don’t really like, but you know is good for you. And I am hoping that, in time, I will be able to answer some of the big questions that have begun raising their heads, as I move beyond my salad days.

 

 

**I don’t mean this to reflect poorly in any way on my folks. I have no doubt they did what they thought was best for their ever growing family, just as I have no doubt that I am messing with my daughter’s psyche in unforeseen ways. We can only do the best we can.

Thinking in(and out)side the box

Something my parents actively encouraged their children to do was to ‘think outside the box’. They led by example in this, making many decisions that raised eyebrows along the way. I still get funny looks when I tell people that I am one of seven siblings, and that most of us home-schooled at some point. During my high school years, we hosted a weekly dinner for a group of 30-odd international students. On her tiny stove, mum would manage to cook massive pots of coconut rice, and litres of curries. The nights would inevitably end with the furniture being pushed back against the walls so we could wildly dance through the house. People would ask ‘why?’ and answering ‘because it’s fun’ never seemed to quite satisfy them. When mum decided to study Mandarin and ended up living in China several times (with my dad and various siblings in tow), a lot of people were genuinely startled – supportive, but startled nonetheless. I think a lot of the reactions came from people wishing they were able to do something like that, but feeling (for whatever reason) that they couldn’t. Being raised to think outside the box is something I am grateful for, but it is something that I often expect of myself, no matter the context. On occasion, I catch myself feeling sorry for people who happily accept the norm. This is a slippery slope – if you end up compulsively resisting the norm because it is the norm, you are really just putting yourself inside a different kind of box.

Mid last year a colleague announced to our team that he had a bunch of free-trial vouchers to give away for one of those meal delivery services. Now, despite my general outside-the-box-ness, I have some strange and stubborn ideas about the ‘right’ way to do certain things. Hanging laundry and making beds are examples that anyone who has tried to help me out with housework will recognise. Another example, I came to realise, is that having a box of ready-to-assemble ingredients delivered to your door, then chopping and cooking them into tasty meals isn’t ‘really’ cooking. There was some part of my mind that felt it was cheating to let someone else do the hard work of choosing the meal and selecting the ingredients; in order to ‘really’ cook, one should suffer through the entire process on one’s own. I should clarify that I only apply these bizarre ideas to myself… if you want to hang your clothes crooked or leave your sheet crumpled under the quilt, more power to you. The only person I judge regarding these things is me, which highlights how altogether ridiculous these ideas are. Still, without giving it much thought, I inwardly rolled my eyes and declined the voucher.

Shortly after my colleague’s announcement, I experienced the sudden and unexpected break-down of a lovely relationship. It was awful. I was heartbroken, and overwhelmed by the shock and grief of it. Although I was in a bad state, one part of my mind fixated on the true fact that I needed to keep eating, and eating healthily. I tried, but I just couldn’t get myself to think or care about meals, let alone slouch my way through aisles and aisles of groceries, let alone actually cook anything. So I swallowed my pride and decided to think inside the box. I accepted my colleague’s offer of a free trial and had a box delivered to my door.**

It was delightful. It took all the thinking out of dinners. All I had to do was chop things and cook them, and it was quick and tasty and easy. So easy. I was hooked, and ended up subscribed to the ongoing service. The weeks passed, as they do, and my heartache slowly eased, as they do, and my dinner boxes were delivered like clockwork. I can’t overstate how much of a life-saver it was to have that element of life taken care of, to know that healthy, easy food would arrive at my door without me having to spend any emotional energy on it. But as I came out of my sadness cocoon, I began noticing the trade-offs. The subscription was pretty reasonable, cost-wise, but it was more expensive than my usual grocery shop. The packaging was excessive – I’ve been making a concerted effort to cut down on plastics, and even though a lot of the packaging was recyclable, the fact is that individually wrapped portions of cheese cumulatively create a whole lot of waste. There was a substantial amount of wasted food. Even though the box I ordered was only for three meals, if I ate out or didn’t have time to cook that specific recipe a few times a week, I found that the fresh food went to waste. I get a particular kind of guilt-trip from veggies festering away in the bottom of the fridge. I hate it. I switched to getting a box fortnightly, instead of weekly. That reduced waste, eased my guilt, and allowed me the freedom to plan my own dinners again. That’s right, after three or four months I had reached the point where I wanted to pick meals and shop for ingredients again. Over summer, I paused my subscription because I knew I was going to be socialising like mad, then going away for a few weeks. Since arriving back, I haven’t un-paused the delivery. I feel like I am ready to get back into the swing of regular shops and meal making. In fact, I am looking forward to it. But I haven’t crawled all the way out of the comfort of the box yet. I haven’t unsubscribed. And now I am the one with a bunch of free-trial vouchers to give away.

This experience has given me a bit of perspective on what ‘thinking outside the box’ can mean. For me, it’s not just aligning your choices to oppose what you perceive to be expected, or mainstream, or ‘inside the box’. It’s not a reaction; it’s certainly not a way to seek attention. Thinking outside the box is making choices that are good for you in that particular moment, no matter who else is doing what. For me, thinking outside the box is a path to managing my expectation of myself, and to valuing my own decision making process more highly than someone else’s knee-jerk reaction to my choices. I am sharply aware of the luck and privilege that allows me to reflect on these things, and that gives me the freedom to make choices in my own best interest. Sometimes my choices are pretty out there, and sometimes they fall squarely inside the box… and that is perfectly okay by me.

 

 

**Let me just note here that I am not singing the praises of one company over another. I happen to have tried this product because of the above coincidences – there are many options out there, and I am sure they all have their pros and cons, and I am in no way affiliated with any of them.

 

Showing the Best Bits

Several things over the past months have got me pondering my use of social media:

1) My job has been hectic and stressful from day one. If you know me in real life, I have definitely complained to you about work at some point. I have written about it here before, to the extent that one of my colleagues (after reading a few blog posts) commented “Wow, work really isn’t a happy place for you, is it?”. But work is a happy place for me. While issues around pay and workload have contributed substantially to my stress levels over the last fourteen months, the job itself is interesting, flexible and challenging, my colleagues are wonderful humans, and we have a lot of laughs. That comment made me realise that I sometimes use this blog as a venting zone, a place to let off steam… not so much a place to highlight all the good things in my life.

2) Earlier this year, my dad stayed with me for a week when there were some particularly troubling things going on at work. Tempers were running high, HR complaints had been made, and the people involved were, to put it mildly, f***ing strung out. After dad had gone home, in response to a social media status update, he sent me an email that said something along the lines of “You’re doing really well, nobody would ever know that work is a shit”. At the time I was pleased – I do kind of take pride in my ability to keep myself together and not let on when I’m upset.

3) Over the summer I was working two jobs. Recently, one of them (not the hectic one) was wrapping up. I had a few things to get finished before I left, and not much time. In my main job, one of my colleagues was away and I had taken on some of her role, as well as having heaps of extra work related to another project I am seconded to. I was putting in long days (8am-6pm) at work, then going home and working until 10pm, just to keep on top of things. By mid-week I was exhausted and overwrought. To cheer myself up, I made a little list of the week’s highlights, and posted it as a status update to remind myself that, even though I was stupidly busy, a number of really lovely things had happened as well. One of my friends responded with the comment “I love your little life updates! they’re always so lovely and I’m always so happy for you!”. I replied lightly that I “leave out all the boring and crap bits”.

These three moments have brought to my attention the disparity between my ‘real’ life, and the way I portray my life online, and have led me to wonder:

When you wreck the hors d’oeuvres and burn the roast, do you go and tell the world about the amazing pudding you made?

There are undoubted benefits to focusing on the good things in life. Even thinking about things to be grateful for is good for your mental state – even if nothing actually comes to mind. I read that in an article recently. Online. So it must be true. But the flip side to ‘focussing on the good’ can be ‘ignoring the bad’, which can be damaging in a number of ways.

  • Pollyanna

When I was in my early adolescence I read Pollyanna. With two older siblings embracing their teenage rebellion, and four younger siblings keeping everyone busy night and day, home life was frenetic and fraught with tension. Pollyanna’s ‘glad game’ struck a chord with me, and became my main coping mechanism. No matter what happened (and some pretty rough things happened in those days), I would find some positive, some silver lining, something to glad about. It is a ‘skill’ I still heavily rely on, but it has definitely contributed to some of my more neurotic behaviour (sobbing in the arms of a friend while pointing out the good in some dreadful circumstance, for instance), and it has contributed to my difficulties in getting out of situations where I am uncomfortable. Instead of saying “No, nup, this is not good”, I tend to seek a positive and go along with whatever is happening. In the past, this has made it hard for me to set and maintain boundaries, and has allowed me to excuse some pretty shitty behaviour. I am unlearning this habit, and have greatly improved my ability to acknowledge things that are bad/crap/rubbish/not okay. I recognise that sometimes life deals out lemons. That’s okay, I can still get on with things, but  instead of rushing off to make lemonade (or line up tequila shots), I am increasingly happy to just carry on with a few lemons in my fruit bowl.

  • Unrealistic expectations

I was talking to a friend recently about all the things we do. She is the mum of a one-year-old, her partner works long shifts at odd hours, and she has recently gone back to study. Their car has died, but they still manage to get across town on public transport to go to galleries, play sport and see friends. I was saying how impressed I am with all the things she manages – when my daughter was that age, it was an achievement if I had a shower. She was surprised. She thought she was lagging behind everyone else and hardly getting anything done.

When we post and share all the great and wonderful things we are doing, it gives others a chance to celebrate them with us. It can also make us seem superhuman. By leaving out the boring and crap bits, we condense ourselves into just the positives. When everyone else’s life seems so great and fun and easy and exciting, it’s easy to put a heap of pressure on yourself to reach the same level, and to be disappointed in yourself when you don’t succeed. In reality, most people spend vast chunks of their time doing mundane, menial, but essential things. Housework. Commuting. Grocery shopping. Waiting in line for coffee. Scanning stuff at work. Surfing the net. Eating a bowl of cereal and staring at the wall. Not everything makes it to a social media post, but very little of it is wasted time.

  • Lack of support when everyone thinks things are fine

There have been a few moments in my adult life (not many, thankfully) where I have been broken. As I said before, I take a weird pride in being able to hold my shit together when things get rough, so at moments when things have been really, really bad, I have found it incredibly difficult to reach out for help. Some of those times, I have muddled along quietly until things have gotten better, as they inevitably do. Other times my distress has exploded suddenly onto unsuspecting friends, creating far-reaching shockwaves. In all those situations, if I had been able to articulate things to the people around me early on, I would have had instant support before things got out of hand. Instead, I went on Pollyanna-ing until I broke. This is a two-fold bad idea: it leaves me in a heaving mess, and it leaves the friends who eventually scrape me off the ground feeling like crap that they didn’t notice anything wrong. While I am learning to accept the challenges that come my way, I am also learning to be frank with people close to me about how I am coping with said challenges. I have noticed lately that I have a few choice friends that I share the warts-and-all version of my life with, while overall I still manage to portray myself as cruising along famously. This is also a bad idea. It means that I basically bitch constantly to one or two people about all the things that are going wrong, that are difficult, that are unfair (ie, that are perfectly normal). They get to see my mess, while the rest of the (social media) world gets the lemonade version. I dump all my negative on a few golden souls, so I can share my positive with everyone else. Not exactly cool. I read a quote a while back that went something along the lines of “Save your best for those who mean the most.” This is the opposite of the habit I have fallen into: of being cheerful and patient and kind at work, then short-tempered and grumpy when I get home to my darling child. My challenge for this year is to turn that around. To show some of my cranky to the people who inspire it (watch out, you bastards!) and to save my best bits for the ones I love.

So much of our lives are in the public domain these days. It’s easy to post an anecdote, a photo, or whatever else without really examining the motivations behind it. Most of the time it would be overkill to have an existential crisis about what we are sharing and why, but I do feel it is important to pause and think about it now and again.

Sharing on social media can go both ways – I tend to err on the side of positivity, but we all have that friend who constantly posts about their difficulties and struggles, rarely mentioning the triumphs. The triumphs definitely happen, but maybe that person is too busy living them to bother posting about them. Obviously there’s no right or wrong way to use social media. For me, it’s important to continue developing my awareness of the distinction between what I project and how that is received. And also to receive what others project in a way that allows space for all the things that don’t warrant a post.

But rest assured, friends, that for every ugly pudding that makes it onto social media, I have made a dozen uglier ones. And a few pretty ones, too.

Chicken Soup: delicious healer, wise teacher

My daughter is not generally a fussy eater. In order to maintain this, when I notice her turning her nose up at certain foods, I try to mix things up a little and get her involved in the whole food provision process. Last time this happened was early in the year when we were both on holidays. I noticed some resistance to my usual no-fuss dinners, and thought I’d take the break as an opportunity to try something different. A week or so beforehand I had been unwell, and a lovely human had brought me chicken soup to make me feel better. I asked my dear progeny if she would like to help make chicken soup, and – being a fan of both chicken and soup – she eagerly agreed. We spent some time looking at recipes online, chose a a good one and worked out what ingredients we would need. We trundled down to the shops, and daughter took great delight in going off on her own to find ingredients in the supermarket (she is a big girl, after all). When we got home, my helper washed veggies and lugged the big pot out of the cupboard, then went off to play while I did the dangerous sharp and hot bits. She would reappear occasionally to steal some bits of carrot and dry noodles and to have a stir, and we would tell each other how good it all smelled. At last, it was ready. There was heaps. I filled old takeaway containers and tupperware and lined them up on the bench to cool – and there was still enough in the pot for dinner and lunch the next day. It was a balmy evening and we sat outside on the back step to eat. The soup was delicious and all was idyllic… until, after a few mouthfuls, daughter spoke.

“I don’t really like this.”

Needless to say, I was a bit sad. All that effort! All that excitement! All that soup!!

She had a good try and managed to get through half a bowl (mainly by eating the noodles), but I’m not a fan of forcing the poor thing to eat stuff she genuinely doesn’t like, so I eventually relented and made her a vegemite sandwich.

The lesson I took away from this little episode was about expectation. We form expectations about all kinds of things, big and small. But life so rarely delivers on them – and it’s easy to be left feeling deflated, disappointed and/or pissed off. I know some people who try to avoid all expectation as a way of practising detachment, but that doesn’t work for me. I end up expecting myself to not have expectations (oh, the irony!), and getting frustrated when I inevitably fail. Instead, I try to acknowledge and manage my expectations. They aren’t always realistic, and if (when!) something falls short, I am able to see that maybe the problem was with my expectation, rather than an error or shortcoming of the person/event/food involved. This isn’t a mechanism to enable self-blame. Instead, it’s a way of keeping things in perspective, and of taking ownership of what’s going on in my head rather than externalising responsibility.

This is one of those life lessons I have learned repeatedly, and will continue to forget and learn again and again. Like my chicken soups, the lesson is slightly different each time. And, if I’m lucky, the end products of both will be increasingly delicious.

You are what you eat

A few weeks ago I was at a friend’s place and noticed a set of bathroom scales. I haven’t owned scales for years – I gauge my weight by the pants-fitting method. I’ve been feeling a little plump lately so, just for a bit of fun, I hopped on. To my genuine surprise, the scales showed that – despite an extended period of little exercise and lots of wine – I was only about 2kg heavier than when I had felt great about my body, about eighteen months earlier. And I was only about 4kg heavier than when, in the post-partum, breastfeeding, sleep deprived stage of weight loss, I felt like a wraith. 4 kilos from stick insect to hippo?! Ridiculous! But the freaky thing was, when I stepped off the scales and saw myself in the mirror, I looked thinner. Substantially thinner. I had one of those moments of epiphany where you realise something really obvious, but in a visceral way: my perception of my body is All. In. My. Mind.

Since then I have been reflecting on the power of self-talk: how I literally see myself is shaped by how I talk about myself to myself. This explains the futility of telling someone they’re thin when they feel fat – it’s not comforting because it sounds like you’re ‘just saying that’. We’ve all had the conversations:

‘Ugh, my thighs are so big’

‘No they’re not! But I really need to do something about the flab on my arms’

‘What? They’re fine!’

You know how it goes. You walk away still feeling like you have thunder thighs, and your friend walks away still concerned about their batwings, and nothing changes for either of you.

I had a different conversation with a friend, J, the other day. We were talking about our attitudes towards our bodies, and how that changes after having a child, and with age generally. I had to eat some words I had spoken previously: that my body shape didn’t really bother me. I confessed to J that, at the moment, it does. Not hugely, but enough to make me feel self-conscious more often than I like. J told me that her new goal is to view herself with acceptance, and to aim for a healthy body, whatever that may look like. I really like that idea, and it’s what I’m now aiming for as well. My body has certain bulgy bits and certain floppy bits, but they bear witness to my motherhood, and my enjoyment of life. I have given up aiming to be thin and toned (I doubt I will ever feel like those words apply to me!) and have started exercising with a view to being fit and healthy. If I feel comfortable and strong, that’s enough. I don’t yet, but I’m confident that I will. Eventually. I have already noticed a change, though – I actually look forward to exercising now. Those who know me well will realise what a big deal this is! The fact that exercise is no longer something I ‘should’ do, but something I look forward to is a huge shift. Making time to exercise regularly is the next challenge… I’m working on getting better at ignoring my own excuses!

 

Next time you catch yourself being negative about your body, try to notice the words you are using, and remind yourself how awesome your body is. It gets you through the day, doing all this weird, gross stuff that you don’t even notice. It carries you all around the place and, even though it isn’t perfect, it does a pretty awesome job. Look after it – feed it well and take it for walks, and give it treats and let it rest so it doesn’t wear out too soon. And be kind to it. Try talking to yourself as you would to a friend – acknowledge insecurities, rather than dismissing them – and be mindful of all the things that work, as well as the things you want to work on.

 

Actually, look… speaking of eating your words, some of the above is overly simplified and optimistic. It’s really difficult to change the way you speak to yourself, because you might not even be aware of it. You might just get a certain feeling when you catch sight of yourself from a particular angle, or when you eat or drink something you told yourself you wouldn’t, or whatever. It’s tricky business, and damn hard work, to notice that – let alone change it. But it’s all just part of a process and we’re all doing the best we can.

People say you are what you eat. I figure if you’re going to eat your words, you might as well eat healthy.