I am not a convert: the problem with gender-neutral toilets

I recently went to see a play called ‘The Convert’ at the Young Vic in Waterloo. For reasons which will remain known only to me and the person who accompanied me, I was not really able to focus on the play and did in fact sleep without shame at points. This will therefore not be a review of ‘The Convert’. I’m sure the play was great. The reviews tell me so. However, the thing that really grabbed my attention were the gender-neutral toilets.

Gender-neutral toilets are a tokenistic concept

In reality, there was nothing new or neutral about the toilets. What was formerly the women’s toilets was now designated as ‘gender-neutral: cubicles’ and what was formerly the men’s toilets were now, ‘gender-neutral: urinals and cubicles’.

The reality of gender-neutral toilets 

Before the play began, I made the following observations. I saw 3 men come out of what were essentially the women’s toilet but saw no woman leave what were essentially the men’s loo.

In the first interval, I heard a woman in the women’s loo exclaim how wonderful it was to have gender neutral toilets and how much she loved it. I then wondered why she still made the decision to use the women’s loo if it was all so wonderful.

In the second interval, I saw a long queue outside the women’s loo. I saw all the men enter the men’s loo and I saw only one woman use the men’s loo. Good for her given that both loos were available for all to use. Personally, I have no desire to visit a men’s loo. I don’t care how long the women’s loo queue is. More fool me you may say. That’s just fine is what I’ll say.

So the question is, why are most women still choosing to use the women’s loo and why are most men still choosing to use the men’s loo? I think it is because we do what we are most comfortable with. For the 3 men who decided to use the women’s loo, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But, in this new world, I have the feeling that the people that will benefit most from this change, will be men, not women.

Why do I care so much?

I made another observation as I queued outside the women’s loo in the second interval. I saw at least 3 men leave the loo and then do up the zips on their trousers. I am not sure if this is normal or a guy thing but it is certainly not something I wish to be exposed to which may have been the case if I had chosen to use the men’s loo.

As a woman, there are times when I want to change outfit or do something which exposes a part of my body that I will only be comfortable doing in front of other women who have breasts and a vagina just as I do. That is my prerogative and my business. I should not have to worry about whether a man who has the right to enter this ‘gender-neutral: cubicles’ loo will enter just as I am about to take my top off or put it back on. Of course, this would not be an everyday occurence anyway but what is wrong with men and women having safe spaces?

I think that what this trend to neutralise the distinction between men and women does is that it risks us no longer being able to acknowledge and celebrate our womanhood and manhood.

I remember a talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which I asked her what it means to be a woman. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her answer. But when I posed the question to many of my other friends, what I realised is the following. It is definitely about biology but it is also about who we are on the sliding scale of ‘womanness’.

I know some may say I am confusing gender with sex and that is just fine for me. I don’t mind putting the two together because I am a woman who hates clothes shopping but loves book shopping. I love football and UFC but I hate violence. I hate cooking but love to cook for others. I am also a woman who believes being a woman does not mean an iron is an extension of my arm nor does it mean that a hoover is my best friend or any other stereotypes that may exist of how I should be because I am a woman. My hair is short which means sometimes I am mistaken for a guy. I am not offended since I am secure in my womanhood.

Being a woman is like being on a sliding scale. I hate make-up but will go nowhere without earrings. My body is curvy but I am athletic.

So how does all this relate to gender-neutral toilets?

Womanhood is not one thing. But in my opinion, being a woman is first and foremost about our biological difference.

There are biological differences which mean that one person is a woman and another a man. This is irrespective of our opinion about who we are. Surely in the place where we we need to use those biological tools, we should be able to have loos which are for those with penises and loos for those with vaginas. Surely we should have spaces where we can feel comfortable dealing with needs related to menstruation or milk-filled breasts or anything else that affects us because of our female biology.

Surely we can have a gender-neutral loo without disposing of men’s and women’s loos.

 

 

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Silence kills: the reason I write openly about the state of my mind

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They say that bacteria needs seven things to grow*. Well, I believe that mental illness/disturbance needs just one thing to grow – SILENCE.

Those who know me know that I tend to be a very private person. I do not have a deep need to be heard. I do however have a desire to encourage others not to struggle alone. Writing publicly about my mind took me a long time to do and to some extent goes against my nature. But, what I realised is that all silence ever did for me was:

  • allow my shame to grow
  • make me feel alone
  • make me feel like there was no way out of my problems
  • result in the deterioration of my mind
  • prolong my suffering
  • allow me to lose out on life

I decided to write about it and write publicly because:

  • I know that when I die, if I do nothing else in this world, if I achieve none of my other dreams, at least my words might help others confront their struggles/seek help/know they are not alone
  • I would hate for others to lose out on life in the way that I did. If my writing helps someone seek help quicker or speak sooner, then this blog is worth it
  • people need to know that no matter their experience, they are not the only ones to have suffered from mental illness/disturbances
  • my mother encouraged me to speak openly and she also encouraged me to stop writing during times of relapse so that I could focus on getting better
  • I come from a long line of ‘strong’ women. I thought I was weak because I could not cope with all that was going on in my mind and in my world.  I now realise that strength has nothing to do with mental illness. It is not a weakness to struggle or to become ill. The weak/strong dichotomy just resulted in more self-loathing which didn’t work out well for me. I now prefer to consider things in this way: each human being has differing levels of resilience and I can grow mine just like others can grow/have grown theirs.
  • I want others to know that mental illness does not have a face, a race, an age, a profession etc

I write because my silence almost killed me. I write because silence kills.

Thirty signs that you are progressing in eating disorder recovery

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This list is not exhaustive and each sign is an indication that you are heading in the right direction. If you are not yet there with any of them, this list is only meant to indicate some things to aim for. Wherever you are at with it all, keep going and please be gentle with your mind and body.

  1. You realise that recovery has everything to do with food
  2. You realise that recovery has nothing to do with food
  3. You don’t completely flip or punch someone in the face when they tell you how ‘well’ you look
  4. You prefer the non-emaciated version of you to the emaciated version of you
  5. You find yourself eating without overthinking
  6. You don’t avoid social occasions involving food
  7. You don’t generally flip out at people because your brain is less malnourished
  8. Cooking does not provoke the terror of God in you and or leave you in a cold sweat
  9. You don’t feel the need to compensate for eating
  10. You are able to laugh without a care in the world
  11. You are no longer hiding your recovered body from the world at large
  12. You know that the answer to difficult equations in life is not weight loss
  13. You no longer have to go to the toilet every 10 seconds at nighttime
  14. Your body is no longer painful to touch/the oedema has gone
  15. Your waking hours are not consumed with food or thoughts of food
  16. You are less interested in Man v. Food/Great Cake Bake Off and more interested in whether Brexit means Brexit and what is happening in the world beyond you
  17. You are not deluding yourself or others about your eating habits and compensatory behaviours
  18. You eat regularly whether you are hungry or not because you are still in recovery
  19. You are weight restored but you keep eating nevertheless
  20. You are no longer having serious body checking sessions
  21. You are able to take a shower without self-loathing
  22. You are accepting of your body irrespective of BMI. You take pride in your body, you rub your growing tummy, because you know how bloody hard it has been – this recovery journey
  23. You don’t give a shit how much you weigh, how much your food weighs or how many calories you have had today
  24. You are honouring your extreme hunger – both physical and mental – without punishing yourself thereafter
  25. A flat stomach is no longer your life’s purpose. You exercise for pleasure, not for pain
  26. You are able to see the evils of an ED and want to shout it out loud to whoever will listen
  27. You are interested in helping others recover even though you are still in recovery
  28. You do not feel the need to play the ‘lose weight, gain attention’ game because you know your voice, not your body, is your most powerful weapon
  29. You keep eating even when and even though you feel like shit. Basically, you continue eating in spite of your other mental health struggles.
  30. Living with you is no longer hell on earth for those around you and you are able to be present and enjoy the company of others

Personally, I struggle most with 8, 18 and 29. I think I’m cool with 16 and 21.

Now, over to you. I leave you with my recovery anthem.

 

Navigating the murky waters of depression and food fatigue during ED recovery

 

The Student Who Became My Teacher

In a former life, I was a teacher who had the great pleasure of working with some fantastic students. I once turned the tables on my students and gave them the task of teaching the class a new skill or schooling the class in some way.

I vaguely remember one student teaching the class some football skills and another teaching art techniques. Yet the lesson which most stood out was the one delivered by one of the cheeriest students I’ve ever had, on the topic of depression. She delivered a presentation on 7 different types of depression including post-natal depression, bipolar disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Prior to her presentation, I remember calling this student one morning to find out why she hadn’t yet turned up to class. ‘I can’t decide what to wear,’ she said. My response, ‘just pick anything and get yourself here.’ And she did. She came in, a few hours late but she made it.

During her presentation on depression, she said that it sometimes manifests itself in angry outbursts and spoke from her own personal experience about being subjected to the anger of a loved one who was in fact struggling with depression.

Hers was the presentation which I never forgot and will never forget. At that time, I did not know that I was only a few months away from my first (or second) major episode of depression. I didn’t know that my student’s inability to choose an outfit to wear was symptomatic of depression rather than inertia. She was in fact a wonderfully spirited young lady who was highly opinionated and fun to be around (I know that is a precious thing because some young people are HARD WORK). But good humour or the ability to smile or laugh does not disqualify someone from depression.

I learnt so much from this young lady that I became pretty good at spotting the happy depressive or the seemingly lazy depressive. I started using a different approach to work with students who struggled with depression. My previous ‘get yourself into College’ approach was replaced with a ‘come in and let’s chat about what’s going on’ approach. The latter was much more effective than the former at helping the student stay the course and more importantly at helping them access support within the College.

Mental Unwellness Is About The Things You Cannot See

Depression is, like most mental illness, about the things you cannot see rather than the things you can see. It’s the physical paralysis which keeps you in bed and the verbal paralysis rips out your tongue. It’s the talk of plans for the future whilst questioning your existence. It’s the person you have a drink with who makes a joke in public but thinks of themselves as the joke in private. It’s the person that turned up late for work yet again despite repeated warnings who is struggling with insomnia rather than inertia. It’s the seemingly absent-minded individual who asks you to repeat yourself for the fifth time in an hour. It’s the person who says, ‘sorry, I can’t come out tonight, something came up.’

I don’t know what became of this student of mine but I do remember her as a funny, hardworking, loving and highly sensitive individual who enriched me in a way I could never have imagined.

My First Experience of Depression

My first experience of depression happened soon after I became a teenager. But, at the time, I did not realise what was happening. I just knew that I was deeply unhappy (for various reasons) and had fallen out of love with this thing called life. In school I was pretty happy and active but my mind was littered with thoughts which I still find challenging as an adult. I managed in the best way I could until the entrance of the eating disorder which helped me become a functional depressive, a state which came back to bite me in adulthood. Perhaps confronting it then would not have landed me where I am today. I say this, knowing that I am also positively changed because of my experiences and have learnt to appreciate simple rather than grandiose pleasures – a fallen leaf in autumn, a cloudless sky, the thrill of speed and the time spent in the company of those I love.

For those of you who have played Jenga, you will be able to visualise the moment that one piece is taken out and the whole stack come crashing down. That was my second major experience of depression. I am still trying to find and collect the scattered pieces. The suddenness and enormity of my descent into depression was like taking a ride through the rapids of hell. Confusion, fear, anxiety, disassociation and an inability to see in colour meant that each day felt like a sadistic exercise in the art of staying alive. The realisation of the fragility of one’s own mind is an incredibly terrifying experience. It still echoes inside my head today, in spite of the passage of time. Amidst the tornado, I did manage to come to a decision about the way forward.

An Eating Disorder Is Not Conducive With Life

In order to recover from the depression, I would need to confront and overcome the eating disorder which lay in the shadows. It had hitherto, neither dominated me nor prevented me from living what I considered to be a full life at the time. It did however, cast a shadow over my life as it was at the time. It meant I socialised with others, except for close friends. It meant being secretive with my family and friends and unfortunately, it meant forgoing potential relationships. I was still able to study, work, do things that I enjoyed from time to time and appear very functional. Being functional was good enough, or so I thought. I couldn’t foreshadow what was to come – a time when functionality would slip first into disfunctionality and then total collapse.

When everything eventually fell apart and I entered a day programme for eating disorders, I was so far removed from the person I had been that I lost all sense of self. It was like trying to find my reflection in a once clean stream whose waters had been muddied beyond redemption.

That said, the day programme helped me stay just out of reach of the talons of depression. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me address the ED. Even though I have serious reservations about the delivery of ED treatment in general, I know that the conditions at home and in my mental state were not right for me to recover. I couldn’t give up the ED (restriction and purging) for fear of the depression. And so began the almost decade long game of running around in metaphorical and literal circles.

The Dangers of Using Exercise in Mental Health Recovery

Running was the other thing I used to help me keep depression at bay. That and swimming. It brought me out of catatonic states, it helped me find a reason to keep going whilst at the same time, keeping me entrenched in a state of emaciation. It also perpetuated the falsehood that I could only deal my thoughts by running the heck out of them. In fact the biggest reason for going on ridiculously long runs was to tire myself so much that my thoughts would sleep for a while. Never worked. At least not for long.

So I return to the song which I posted at the start of this blog. The lyrics sum up all you need to know about how some people manage depression and mental unwellness.

Once upon a time, I tried to run it away. Neither snow nor rain nor freezing temperatures could dissuade me from running. Now I try to cycle it away or swim it away or pretend it away or sleep it away or hide myself away but all of these are temporary fixes for something which is a recurring issue. It was in fact the reason, that I spent so long stuck in a eating disorder. Hiding from rather than confronting it keeps a person in eternal hell.

For me, the eating disorder always felt like a lesser evil. The thought of losing my sanity, of coming so close to letting the waves completely take me has always been a more frightening proposition than the idea of struggling with food forever. Yet exercise is not a panacea for mental unwellness.

Telling someone with an eating disorder to use exercise to cope with depression is like telling someone whose heart is failing that exercise will make their heart stronger. Yes, in theory, exercise can strengthen the heart but if it is seriously damaged, recommending exercise might just be the nail in the coffin.

Whilst the first few months of my second attempt at recovery went pretty smoothly, mentally and nutritionally, the past few months have been pretty tough. Continuing to eat whilst in the throes of another episode of depression was not really a difficulty which I had given that much thought to. But now it’s here, I am not sure that I am dealing well with it or that I know how to deal with it.

The strange thing about depression is that its bones have normally calcified by the time I am aware of what is happening. By that point, I am far too immobile to move easily through it. First my mind begins to struggle and then my body.

Depression And Appetite

Depression has made my appetite plummet and in turn made food harder to face. There is now more anxiety around meals and less ability to force myself to eat when I don’t fancy anything in particular. This is compounded by the fact that I am now weight restored plus (as I call it). I am not flirting with a marginally weight restored body, I am fully embracing weight restoration. Forcing myself to eat at this higher weight is indeed a massive challenge. A skipped meal here, and a skipped meal there was the beginning of an ED for many a sufferer.

The Dangers of Complacency in ED Recovery After Weight Restoration

Given my belief that EDs are primarily a mental rather than physcial illness, it really is incumbent on me to stop giving myself permission to skip meals simply because my weight is normal and my appetite low. I am well aware of the fact that I have now given myself permission to allow my appetite to dictate whether I eat or not. I know this is a dangerous path to go down in recovery. I also know that if I let this go on for much longer, I risk undoing the hard work I have put in over the past six months plus.

The one thing which I have tried to do is to eat out with others, a task which comes with its own challenges. It helps sometimes. Yet in truth, I am fed up of eating, of food, of choice, of the daily monotony of it, of the discomfort of fullness and the anxiety around deciding what to eat and making something to eat.

Sometimes depression and eating disorders are two separate entities and sometimes they are bedfellows. For the first time since I began my recovery, I have begun to doubt my ability to recover from either.

Ultimately, I think that if I cannot find a way to manage and perhaps eventually overcome the episodes of depression, I may put my long term recovery from the ED in jeopardy. I am still committed to ED recovery and learning about me. But……..

Where Now?

That’s the question I’m still asking myself.

 

 

 

How long will it take to recover from an eating disorder? The three phases of recovery

The short answer: however long it bloody well takes.

For a more complete answer, please keep reading.

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There is a video doing the rounds at the moment in which a baby bear is trying desperately to climb up a snow drift to join Mama/Papa Bear. This video sums up not only the journey of recovery but also the length of time it will take.

The first time I watched this video, what struck me most was not the cub’s perseverance, but my impatience. I wondered how long it would take the little furball to make it to the top. Eventually, it did. And so it is with recovery. EVENTUALLY, WE WILL.

In my case, it has taken about nine years since I first decided to rid myself of the thorn in my side to actually say with confidence that I am on my way to recovery, from the eating disorder at least. My journey has been like the bear cub’s.

This post came to mind when I read a comment from a woman on social media who said that it took her 10 years to recover. My instinctive reaction, ‘wow, that’s a long time’. Then I realised that my own recovery has been a long time in the making too.

In professional recovery settings, there is a theory that it takes on average seven years to recover from an eating disorder. I remember when I first heard this, I was determined to prove the naysayers and pessimists wrong. I didn’t feel I had seven years to sit around trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle of recovery. And then I started my own recovery.

WHAT IS MEANT BY ‘Recovery From An Eating Disorder’? 

I guess recovery for some looks like weight restoration but I think this is probably the bird’s eye view of recovery rather than the lived-in, experiential view of what recovery is.

For me, I see recovery as the point at which food and my relationship with food no longer imposes limits on the way I live my life. 

I therefore see recovery as a Three Phase process.

Phase 1 (Physical/Nutritional recovery): you allow your weight to settle at the point at which your body is happiest. This might mean allowing yourself to consume huge amounts of food at times because your body or mind or both demand it of you. Or it might mean little and often. Or any other formula in between. YOU MUST FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.

For me, this process took about 3 or 4 months and meant gaining around 40% of my current body weight. It was an extremely uncomfortable process because it was rapid but I knew that I couldn’t live in the halfway house of recovery. I also knew that if I forced my weight to stay at a certain number, if I decided what the right weight was for my body, then I would forever be at risk of relapse.

Some may take years to become weight restored, some months. And for some, weight restoration is not a part of the process because they are not underweight. For the latter group, I would say that Phase 1 is about allowing yourself to satisfy both your hunger and cravings in order to restore the nutritional balance of your body. It is possible to be malnourished without being underweight.

Nutritional/Physical restoration also means allowing yourself variety in eating and not climbing on the rollercoaster of bingeing, restricting, overcompensating, overexercising, self-flagellation, purging, laxative abuse, chewing or spitting or any other disordered behaviour in relation to food.

Phase 2 (mental recovery): this part will in my opinion take much longer than Phase 1. This involves mental recovery. This means no longer beating yourself up about eating, no longer feeling that eating is a crime. This phase involves doing away with the self-loathing which can come with eating and re-feeding. It means accepting your body and not denying yourself food because of your shape or size.

I know that for some people, depression is triggered by the eating disorder. That can mean that as your body recovers, your mind will also begin to recover. However, for others, the depression is separate to the eating disorder which means that your job will be to continue recovering mentally from the eating disorder in spite of the depression. I think it is possible to recover even whilst struggling with depression. I am having to do that myself.

Phase 3 (Recovering your life): this means taking back what was lost. For those whose lives and whose very existence has been devastated by an eating disorder, recovery may mean learning how to function again within society.

It may mean:

  • Learning how to get back into work or education
  • Learning how to interact socially with others
  • Learning how to eat out and how to be comfortable with that
  • Learning how to eat in the company of others
  • Learning how to have intimate and sexual relationships with others
  • Learning how to manage your finances
  • Learning how to be independent
  • Learning how to function and how to deal with the rigmarole and difficulties of life  without resorting to eating disordered behaviours.
  • Learning how to deal with regret and the pain of what was lost

FINAL THOUGHTS

When it is laid out like this, it is not hard to see why recovery can feel like a kind of REBIRTH. It involves so many elements of learning and growth which are forced upon you irrespective of age. Whether you recover at 15, 25, 35, 45, 55, 65 or 75 (if you get to live that long with an ED), you will still have to walk the same path.

The truth is that the longer you wait to recover, the harder it might become. The longer you wait, the less appetite you may have for recovery. It often feels easier to cling to the familiar even if that life is one of misery. Finally, the longer you wait to recover, the more chance there is that it will kill you physically, mentally or through a combination of both which oftentimes looks like suicide.

I know I have completed Phase 1. The other phases are ahead of me. The best I can do at the moment, is to continue walking towards the point at which food or thoughts of food, body image will no longer be like thick chains around my ankles.

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Thank you for reading.

Please share if you think this article could potentially help someone. Eating disorders are firstly disorders of the mind. One’s body may look perfectly healthy but the mind may look like the aftermath of a storm.

The dying art of conversation/Where now for Rage?*

 

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This was going to be the shortest blog I would ever have written. But then I started writing.

I would like to defend the right of people to debate and discuss. There is a lot going on in our world today and sometimes it feels like a scary world to live in.

Why? Because it feels like we are living in an increasingly polarised world. In this world there are only two camps: THE RIGHT OPINION and THE WRONG OPINION.

The first casualty of this new set-up may just be conversation or at least the right to respectfully diverge in opinion.

What I’m increasingly seeing are attempts to suppress the opinions of or shame those with whom we disagree.

This has left me asking the following questions:

When did we as a society decide that cohabitation is no longer an option when it comes to diverging opinions?

When did we decide that the way to deal with an opinion we disagree with is to abuse or shame a person?

And when did we decide that if you don’t agree with me, YOU are the problem?

Is free speech really alive and kicking in this new world order?

A wise person told me this week that the problem is that some want peace whilst others want war. I think this person might have been right.

This brings me to a separate but connected topic: Rage.

When old wounds or even new ones are opened up, we as individuals and a society need to decide how best to deal with the inevitability of Rage. If we don’t decide on this, then it’s like leaving your front door wide open for the thief to enter.

In this discussion entitled ‘Where now for Rage?’, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

Is the ultimate aim war or peace?

Is it too early to speak of peace when Rage is still being unleashed?

Should Rage ever be organised or remain unfettered?

Does Rage need a conduit?

Do we seek out a process by which Rage is given the space for self-expression?

And is it even possible to have controlled rage?

Do we have any precedents?

In the aftermath of apartheid and the liberation of the ANC under the leadership of Nelson Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The ANC decided that the best response to the apartheid and brutality that Blacks was not vengeance but reconciliation.

Rage was never completely unleashed because Rage was consigned to the room called RECONCILIATION. This room was imperfect but led to a platform from which to move forwards rather than the regression of all-out war.

Again, I’m left with more questions than answers:

Would some not have preferred retribution?

Should we seek forgiveness and can there be forgiveness without confession or remorse?

Can there be reconciliation even though lives have been destroyed?

With all the issues that are going on in our world today, we need to talk without FEAR of …….

We need to decide how best to respond when we feel/are wronged or when we hear opinions we disagree with.

Do we go for all-out war, or do we seek peace as the end-goal?

These questions are for you and me to weigh-up and answer. This post is not intended as a forum for my opinions. I’m simply saying: WE NEED TO TALK.

I wish to leave you with my final thoughts which are only to be read in the context of DISCUSSION/OPINIONS rather than TRUTH/FACT.

If I say that I am right and you say that you are right, we are one step closer to war. This is called an ARGUMENT. But if I say that I believe I am right but agree to leave room open to change my mind, and you do the same, then we are one step closer to PEACE and RECONCILIATION. This is called a DEBATE or CONVERSATION.

*the original post was edited after a night spent marinating.

 

 

Chicken for breakfast, fuckboys* and other reasons to choose the bike over public transport.

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We have enjoyed one of the best summers on record in London. I’ve had few reasons to use public transport. That was until my last week when I decided to make two journeys – one by tube and the other by bus. Both journeys reminded me why I choose to cycle.

Swimming is another one of my hobbies. The idea of cycling uphill to get to the swimming pool just seemed silly to me. It would inevitably leave me with too little energy for the swim which was the actual purpose of my trip so I jumped on the bus and sat at the back – window seat. The bus had just started to move off when another woman at the back took out a back of freshly cooked chicken drumsticks from the Sainsbury’s rotisserie section. She then proceeded to chomp down on those poor buggers, one drumstick at a time with absolutely zero regard for the smells that were now invading every inch of the back of the bus. Add this to the potent combination of heat from the back engine and the general poor air quality in London during summertime and it was just a little too much for me. I stayed put, knowing that the chicken would not live much longer the way she was devouring it. I don’t know her story so I can’t and won’t judge her for her eating habits. I just wish she would have had a little mercy on the rest of us and taken care of business before getting on the bus.

Five minutes into this now too long journey and the smell of chicken is still strong. An elderly man to the right of me decides that now is the time to inject a little music into this delightful scene. The air is obviously not lively enough and another invasion of territory is called for. There is an attitude which prevails a lot on buses these days. It goes a little something like this:

I am not happy with just me listening to my music. I want you all to join in the fun with me. Yes, that means you too, miss, don’t think I didn’t see you trying to hide away in the corner.  My music is the dog’s ………. and you need to know this too.

So, I and my fellow passengers were treated to the sounds of some reggae tune that would probably have been better appreciated at the Carnival than it was on that bus. Now a part of me feels like a killjoy but I don’t understand when people lost the key to the door called ‘common courtesy’. There is little left of the two CCs on public transport these days. In the past 5 months, I have had to ask 3 men (one over the age of 30 and the other 2 in their 40s) to lower the volume. Not to turn their bleeding racket off, but just to lower it so I and my fellow passengers could fall into the bed of weariness which our bodies were motioning us towards.

I didn’t feel like asking another man to turn his music down so I took myself, my grumbles and my swimming gear to the top floor. I had about a minute of peace before a young girl decided to come on the bus and tell the entire top deck about her dead cousin who’s grave she swears on and the argument she was having with someone else and yadda yadda yadda who cares.

When you are in a small space, you have two options: endure the bullcrap or get the heck out of dodge. Actually, the third option which was to confront the individual who has no regard for anyone else is also a viable option but not always the wisest. London is a city where one wrong look can turn into a funeral (a slight exaggeration but you get my drift). I know that oftentimes it’s not what you say but how you say it that makes the difference. I could have been nice and asked politely that she shut her mouth and give the rest of us some peace but I just had no patience.

My final grumble was like something out of a comedy sketch:

It’s a Friday night. Sally-Ann is on the tube returning from a long journey up north. She takes the first clean seat she come to on the tube. A few seats away from her, a man looks like he has poured double cream all over his mouth and she wonders if his mind has gone or whether there is another explanation for this sight on a London tube. A few stops later, three barely 20-something year olds board the tube – two men and one girl. High in spirits and probably weed too from the smell of one of the men who sits next to her. They begin talking about Insecure quite loudly, loudly enough for Sally-Ann to have to re-read the last line of a newspaper article five times. They ask a passenger whether she has watched Insecure before then they spend a few minutes talking about the programme and laughing loudly.

That I can manage. But then the conversation moves on – to ‘fuckboys’.

The girl in the group asks one of the boys how many girls he’s currently having sex with. He says four but that’s fine he continues, because the girls are also allowed to sleep with other guys if they want. They then begin to disagree about what exactly a ‘fuckboy’* is. It’s at this point where things become a little surreal. The height of their voices is just a little too tall for me given my fatigue so I move seats. They stay put and begin canvassing opinions – from other passengers!!!!

‘What do you think? What’s a fuckboy?’, one of the men asks a random passenger who I was sitting next to just a few minutes ago.

‘A fat boy? F-A_T?’, she asks

‘No, a fuckboy’, the man repeats.

At this point, one a passenger who is standing up begins to laugh. Hard.

I’d do the same but I’m not finding it funny. Fatigue makes me grumpy in the same way hunger makes some angry.

I don’t flip out, or intervene and nor do I need to. The third in the group, a weed boy, who’s been pretty quiet throughout the journey, begins to try to calm his loud friend down. He tells him he’s taken it a little too far and almost seems embarrassed – an ‘I don’t know you’ kind of embarrassment. Throughout the whole exchange, he’s been pretty quiet. I think it’s the weed, which he is reeking of but maybe I’m wrong and maybe it’s just his nature.

Either way, this is the final straw in my tube nightmare and all I can say as I get off the tube (internally of course), is ‘ Thank God for my bike’.

  • apologies in advance for the vulgarity but like Childish Gambino might say ‘This is Lon-din-nium’

** if you know what on earth it is (though it seems a little obvious), well done sticker for you.

 

An open letter to Laura Craik*, myself and anyone who has ever longed for a flatter stomach

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*the original article written by Laura Craik.

Dear Laura,

I read your commentary on ‘stomachs as status symbols’ with both admiration and sadness.

These are the things I admired:

  1. You had the guts to go against the grain when you used humour to pour contempt on the Kayla Itsines (amongst others) obsession with physical perfection. (The heroine of these Instatums is Kayla Itsines, a personal trainer with 9.7 million followers who posts binary motivational quotes such as ‘You got two choices 1) Do it now 2) Regret it later.’ I posted ‘3) Or you could just eat cheese instead’ in the 585-strong comments underneath, but Kayla didn’t reply to me. She sounds like a well-meaning girl, but merely looking at her makes me feel exhausted.) When did a flat stomach become aspirational? When did flat stomachs become our gods and idols, our raison d’etre? When did we sell our souls to the devil and become body-worshippers rather than worshippers of all that is good and uplifting about humanity?
  2. You understand the vulnerabilities of some women from an aesthetic point of view and you rightly recognise that this is big business for those who are unscrupulous enough to exploit this frailty. The true frailty is not the size of our stomachs but rather the way in which we as people (men and women) empower and value ourselves or disempower ourselves based on the size of our stomachs. This frailty is about the fact that the synonym for a flat stomach is strength and the synonym for a protruding stomach is weakness.
  3. Finally, I love the fact that you have made peace with your stomach and that you choose a slab of that great Swiss/French cheese, raclette, over a flat stomach. I buy the ‘food is fuel’ line just as much as I buy the ‘sex is for procreation’ line.

These are the things which saddened me:

  1. That you consider a ‘big stomach’, a cross to bear. (In the wobblefest of life, we all have our cross to bear. I have a big stomach, but I’ve had to make peace with it because I’m greedy. Faced with a choice between ‘flat tummy’ and ‘slab of raclette’, I’ll always choose the cheese.) A stomach is just a stomach. But sometimes, we (both men and women) consider it a burden if it is not flat. If it wobbles or protrudes. In the grand scheme of life, you will be so much happier and so will all of us if on our death beds we remember the sacrifices we made for loved ones rather than the sacrifices we made in our desperate efforts to acquire a ‘flat stomach’. A big stomach is not a cross to bear. There are those whose stomachs really are a cross to bear because they suffer from digestive or other medical issues. There are real crosses to bear such as poverty, illness, addiction, broken homes and marriages, a lack of education. When lined up against this ugly list, surely you can see that a big stomach really is not a cross at all. We ought to be glad for stomachs that can nurture babies for those women able to have kids. We ought to be glad for stomachs that rise and fall and mimic the rise and fall of laughter. We ought to be glad for stomachs that are big because they are satiated rather than stomachs that are weak and shrivelled up from the ravages of starvation. Not all flat stomachs are starved stomachs but inevitably, some will be.
  2. That we as people (women and men) are so hard on ourselves. I feel sad that we feel the need to turn our bodies into things they were never intended to be. Sad that women feel the need to resemble men and sometimes go to great and terrifying lengths to achieve what they consider perfect proportions.
  3. I feel sad that some believe in such a thing as a bikini body and that somehow not having that is a failure. I feel sad that our minds are so preoccupied with size and shape that we cannot see the devastation that is right in front of us: people engaged in self-loathing, the silent killers, addiction and poverty. I feel sad that we give our time, minds, money to aesthetic improvements rather than soul and spirit driven improvements.
  4. And finally, although I sense humour in the article and especially in your parting words of advice, (If, like me, you’ve failed to acquire a bikini body this summer, I offer my own motivational quote. 1) Buy a really massive handbag 2) Carry it in front of your stomach at all times 3) Job done.) I find your proposed solution frightening.

I/We/You do not need to apologise for the size of our/your stomach(s). I/We do not need to apologise for our size. What I/We ought to be sorry about are the things we have neglected because of our all consuming desire to acquire physical perfection. We ought to be sorry for the relationships we neglected or sacrificed, sorry for the people and things we could have focused our energies on and most of all sorry, for neglecting our minds and souls because we were so consumed by our bodies.

 

DEATH: the conversation that every parent owes their adult child and that every adult child must broach with their parent(s)

“A man that has not prepared his own children for his death has failed as a father.”

My mum died almost a year ago. Most days the shock of it is still too much for my mind to bear.

I wasn’t ready for her to die. I hadn’t recovered from my issues as I’d planned, I hadn’t been able to share the experiences with her that I’d hoped for and finally, I hadn’t had meaningful conversations with her about her death. My mum occasionally made mention of it, alluded to it, but I avoided talking to her directly about it even though the reality of her mortality was ever-present. It often drove me to tears to think that one day she would no longer be here and I had no idea how I’d survive life without her.

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Given that I wasn’t a fan of the movie Black Panther, it is strange that this quote came to mind but it did. It was the one moment in the film that truly resonated with me. A parent owes it to their child to prepare them for their death. No-one else can.

In my mum’s final year on earth, we wrote love letters to one another. I think she was preparing me for her death. We spoke with an uncommon frankness. I am grateful for all the moments we shared in spite of our geographical distance. Her gifts to me – her prayers, her words, her encouragement, her sense of assurance that I would overcome all my mental and physical difficulties come what may and thankfully, the gift of siblings – were the tools which helped me somehow manage and navigate ‘life after’. I’m still broken by her death but somewhere within me, I think I knew what was coming. I just wish I’d been brave enough to speak to her about death.

That missed opportunity is the reason I decided to write this post. Parent(s) and adult children need to have conversations about death. This post is a plea and a challenge to all parents and adult children.

You Need To Talk About Death.

Some say there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Well, I beg to differ. The latter can be avoided with some smart wizardry on the part of a great accountant but the former, DEATH, comes to us all. Death is the only certainty of life. And so I write an open letter to parents and another to adult children to ask that they begin to engage in this conversation.

An Open Letter to All Parents of Adult Children

Dear Parent(s),

You owe it to your child(ren) to discuss your life and your death with them.

You owe it to your child(ren) to discuss you life story so they have a sense of belonging and identity and quite frankly, so they don’t end up with a headache writing your biography once you’re gone. You owe them the gift of your stories, your triumphs and failures, your funny moments and even your hopes for them because these things will carry them once you’re gone.

You owe it to your children to have a will and to discuss the contents and location of your will with them lest its absence become a source of contention once you are no more.

You owe it to your child(ren) to discuss your burial wishes because it will either add to or lessen the burden of your death.

You owe it to your child(ren) to have a life insurance policy or to make some kind of provision for your funeral lest your child(ren) be broken by financial loss as well as the inevitable loss of their parent.

You owe it to your child(ren) to leave them with your words through love letters or recordings or something which will continue to exist when you’re long gone lest your children forget the sound of your voice and your words of encouragement.

You owe it to your child(ren) to encourage them to continue to live life fully in spite of the murky waters of depression which inevitably come with grief because they will never have experienced anything like it and the confusion and insanity which oftentimes accompanies grief can fracture even the strongest mind.

You owe all this and much more to your child(ren) because grief makes of every adult a child. And just as you would protect a child, so you must protect your child from and prepare your child(ren) for the harsh realities of death.

Should you choose not to have this discussion with your child and they by dint of some unspeakable power choose to broach the subject with you, it does not mean they are wishing or praying your life away. It does not mean they are plotting your death. It simply means they have chosen to confront their worst nightmare – the inevitability of your death.

Please do not chide, cast them away or defer the topic until ‘another day’ for tomorrow is not assured for any of us, child or parent.

And finally, if Mufasa can have ‘that talk’, so can you.

An open letter to all adult child(ren)

Dear Adult Child,

You owe it to yourself and to your parents to have this conversation. Speaking to your parents about their own death will not hasten their death. It may be one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have but you owe it to yourself to have this conversation. The process will enrich you and give you a chance to begin the work of coming to terms with the inevitable.

It will give you a chance to avoid some of the pain which comes with grief. It will give you a chance to avoid arguments with relatives about your parents’ wishes.

It will give you a chance to begin to do now the things you will wish you had done once they are no more. It will open your eyes to the good fortune you have of still having your parent(s) alive but it comes with inevitable sadness so bring along a box of tissues.

It will give you a chance to confront your own immortality and perhaps prompt you into really beginning to live rather than sleepwalking your way through life.

It will give you a chance to talk to your parents about their life story – their place of birth, their own parents (your grandparents), their childhood, their highs and lows, their advice. Think of all the gaps in your knowledge when it comes to your parents and ask them questions. Their story, their stories, will equip you will an unrivalled sense of belonging and identity. It will help you understand them better and it will help you feel a little less lost once they are no more.

You need to ask your parents whether they have a will, where on earth it is, where and how they wish to be buried and whether they have made any kind of provision for their funeral because it will save you such heartache when they die.

Final thoughts

The word ‘Death’, is not an infectious disease. You cannot catch it by talking about it and you do not will it into being by making mention of it.

As humans beings, we are all ‘guilty’ in one way of another of avoiding or trying to avoid death. We avoid the word itself when we speak of ‘losing’ someone, of someone ‘passing away’, of someone ‘going to a better place’ instead of calling it what it is – DEATH. And oftentimes we avoid the products of death, the corpse of a loved one, grief itself and in many cases we avoid the grieving because the raw emotions of those who grieve can elicit fear and a sense of helplessness on the part of the onlooker.

But the truth is that avoidance of the topic does not prevent death and more importantly it does not make death when it eventually comes, any easier to bear.

If after reading this post you still feel unable to talk about death with your loved one, please print the open letters and share both with your parent or your adult child. Alternatively, direct them to this post.

This post is intended as a feather rather than a stick, a trigger rather than a bullet.

I hope it helps one or some confront the topic of death.

 

 

 

On the myth of colour-blindness: why I want to talk to White people and all peoples about race

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I’m late to the game. I have only started reading Reni Eddo Lodge’s book: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I’m almost halfway into the book but I could no longer contain myself.*

I came to this country at the age of nine from Nigeria. Although I was born in the UK, as a nine year old, I had no ‘memories’ of any encounters with white folk. My first inkling that the topic of race might be a ‘hot potato’ came when I went on a camping trip whilst in primary school. I made a comment about someone being white and I was told by another white person that I was racist. The mere mention of race became racism.

We were kids back then and this was obviously a misinterpretation of what it means to be ‘racist’. Essentially what I was doing back then was using an identifier. I still do it unapologetically as an adult even though I am sometimes reprimanded for it. I do it because I SEE RACE. There, I said it. I see it. That’s no crime. What matters is what I do with that information.

Is it even possible to be colour blind?

When police officers speak about an individual, the first thing they often do is refer to an IC code. IC1 being White, IC3 being Black. They may then go on to talk about height, build, hair colour, clothes etc. These are all identifiers. There is nothing inherently wrong with identifying someone by the colour of their skin. What is wrong is attributing a trait to someone based on the colour of their skin. Here’s an example. I remember working for the Met in my early 20s as an analyst. I remember a White police officer talking to an Asian police officer about someone he had stopped. The White officer was annoyed with the ‘attitude’ of the young man an in describing this attitude to the Asian officer he said: you know, giving it typical IC3 behaviour. So, I will return to what I said. There was nothing wrong with identifying the young man by his race in my opinion. But I did have a problem with this idea that there was a behaviour that could be deemed ‘typical IC3 behaviour’. It is exactly this stereotype of the behaviour of Black folk that can land our behinds or heads on the wrong end of a truncheon.

It is impossible to be colour blind just as it is impossible to be blind to buck teeth when an individual is speaking or stank breath when someone comes close to you. We all have assumptions that we make about people based on their race. Sometimes those assumptions seem justified and at other times, they are not based on reality. Even kids notice race and they are pretty honest about it. It’s we adults who pretend that we cannot see race. The only difference between adults and kids in my opinion is that kids don’t allow race to stop them from having a new play partner whereas adults do allow race to stop them from interactions with other races. Adults may do this consciously or subconsciously.

Another example: I went to a fantastic secondary school. It was predominantly white and perhaps about 10% black. This is a guesstimate. I remember being in a year 8 history class when a teacher started separating students. She said that she didn’t think all the Black folk should sit together. Now I didn’t actually take note of the fact that this is what had been happening. It seemed the Black students naturally gravitated towards each other and perhaps the White folk did the same (I cannot be sure). But perhaps as Black kids, we veered together subconsciously simply because ‘birds of the same feather flock together’. Some may disagree with the actions of the teacher who was White but I think she was onto something. When I look back on it, I can’t be sure whether we as Blacks or Whites ‘chose’ to sit with their own. Whatever the cause, the outcome was still the same – a segregated class – until the teacher’s intervention.

There is nothing inherently wrong with noticing race. I say it again. But there is something wrong when people consciously or unconsciously ‘ignore’ ‘the other’ based solely on their race. When I say ignore I mean choose not to mix with someone based on their race.

There is a kind of colour blindness that I as a Black woman have experienced. On one level, it’s the kind of invisibility that sees me waiting to get served at a bar whilst others around me who look nothing like me get served ahead of me. It’s the kind of invisibility which makes me wonder why Prince Charles rather than the mother of the bride, Doria Ragland, will be the one to walk Meghan down the aisle.** It’s the double invisibility of being a 1) Black 2) woman. It means that in environments in which I am in an absolute minority (firstly because of my race) it can be hard to be seen unless I am seen. I call it ‘being invisible until you become visible‘. This visibility is often a negative kind of visibility (you’re late, you’re aggressive, you’ve done something wrong). It is very rarely a ‘that was a brilliant idea’, ‘let’s promote you’, ‘what are your thoughts on the matter?’ kind of visibility.

There are at least 2 forms of colour blindness (I suspect there are a few more when we talk about race):

* I don’t see race at all (I don’t believe this really does exist in our day and age)

* I don’t see you because of your race (this is more prevalent in our society in my opinion. It may mean that you find someone of a different race unattractive so you ‘cannot’ see them or don’t care to see them or it may mean that you have beliefs about a person of a certain race and don’t see the value in them because of their race)

Being blind to colour is in my opinion impossible: If we think we are truly colour blind then why don’t white folk walk into Black hairdressers and vice versa?

What is more likely is that as human beings, we see race just as we see the massive spot on someone’s forehead and we are left to choose one of the following options:

* I see your race but you are a human being first and foremost so I look forward to getting to know you more…..

* I see your race so consciously or unconsciously, I will stay away because we have nothing in common, because I don’t know how to interact with you…..

* I see your race but I don’t care because there are much more important things for me to focus on such as your ideas and opinions, how we can help each other etc…..

* I see your race so I can’t see you…..This happened to me and a friend of mine when we were studying abroad in France. We were the only 2 non-White students from our university. The university in France decided to enter us for a lower level exam than the others students. After scoring high marks, we were told by one of the university staff members that they thought we would not be able to cope with the higher level exam hence the reason we were entered for the lower level one. What they really meant was that ‘we saw your race not your brilliance’.

I am sure there are other variations on the ‘I see your race’ theme. What matters to me firstly is not that there are a multiplicity of perspectives but what matters is that we talk about these perspectives and the impact it has on individuals and groups. 

My teacher did me a favour in school. She didn’t pretend that she couldn’t see race. She spoke about it openly and gave me something to think about. She forced me to interact with others that I would not naturally interact with. I see race. Without a shadow of a doubt. But most of the time, what I care more about is the humanity of the individual and our interaction. My friendship group is full of people of different races and I love it. I love learning about culture, I love the different perspectives this brings. I love that I can joke with them about our differences. But I also love the fact that I can talk openly about race with most of them. We may not always agree (different lenses) but at least we can have a conversation and surely that is the starting spot.

Just because we say or pretend that we cannot see something does not mean it does not exist. The only way to truly make oneself blind to race is to tie a piece of cloth around one’s eyes and use some earplugs too. Race is not going anywhere so we might as well confront the issue of its impact on individuals and groups.

*Whether people agree or not with the author’s sentiments, I still believe it to be a fantastic read in our day and age and I hope it will continue to provoke discussions without accusations.

**This is pure speculation on my part and I acknowledge it as just that. Double invisibility for me is not just about how Black women are perceived and treated by others. It’s also about how we feel about ourselves and how we treat ourselves based on our experiences as Black women.