Tag Archives: Autumn Barlow

Female body image, fitness… and joy

A guest blog by Autumn Barlow

In this blog post I want to write about female body image, fitness … and joy. Celebration. Positivity. Love. Support. And laughter.

Twelve weeks ago, I would not have imagined I would be writing that. Indeed, you only have to stray onto the internet to be assailed by a ream of blog posts and articles which warn you about the trials and pitfalls of simply being in possession of a female-presenting body. You will always be too big, too small, too muscular, too rounded, too angular, just too real.

Twelve weeks ago, I decided to join a gym. I had a few reasons; after the death of our dog, I lost all motivation to go walking or cycling, and a history of medicinal steroids for Crohn’s Disease has left my bones thinner than average. The best thing for bone density, I found, was “resistance” training, also known as strength training, also known as … weightlifting. In my case, I chose powerlifting.

I googled. I read article after article that warned me about the terrors I was about to face. The articles told me I was going to be doing A Good Thing but that no one else would understand. I would have strangers warning me to “not get too muscular.” I would have men looking at me in the gym and trying to “mansplain” things to me. I read case studies and facebook posts where women documented their struggles to be taken seriously in the weights room. The negatives were endless; women struggling to eat enough for their training because society was judging them. Women trying to hide their toned arms. Women being used as bad examples to others – the woman who overheard a trainer tell his client not to use the big weights “Or you’ll look like her over there.”

I compiled a mental list of witty comebacks and strode into the gym with a face like a slapped arse. Come on, I snarled. Let’s have it.

Three months later, and I’m still waiting to be able to use those cutting retorts.

There is a website I have been following which talks about the everyday oppressions that many people experience; it discusses issues of race, sex, gender, able-ism and concepts of the “other”. I have read it, daily, for many months.

I recently unfollowed it.

Day after day, to be told that whatever you do – in whatever way you try to understand and be an ally – you will always be, somehow, wrong or privileged or in some way too entitled to ever really understand – that is draining. I ended up feeling like the very fact that I was trying to educate myself on issues was a problem! My desire to understand was a symptom of my education privilege, my intellectual privilege, these walls not of my own making that would forever see me on the other side, the evil oppressor.

When you go looking for wrongs, you can find them very easily. I went into the gym fired up and ready to take on the world because I had been told that the world was out to get me.

I am not dismissing the horrible and negative experiences that many women have had in the gym. And men, too; how terrifying is it for anyone to walk into a place where everything is unfamiliar and the rules are unwritten? No wonder that many people, if they find the courage to step inside, leap straight onto a running machine – they are near the door and they are simple to work out how to use – and they never make it to the sweaty freeweights section in a dark corner. I judge no one on their choices in the gym. Everyone who is there is damn brave.

And I acknowledge the disgusting comments that some women have heard; the well-meaning patronising advice; the sneers; the dismissals; and the abuse. I do.

But that’s not what this post is about. Not today. This post is about my experience … and my profound gratitude to my allies. Those who have tried to be an ally. You have succeeded. Thank you.

I hope that you, too, have people in your life – friends or family or strangers – who have helped you and supported you. It’s not always done overtly or directly. It might be the man in the gym who you don’t know, who chooses to stand at an angle while he does his biceps curls, so that he is not facing you head-on and intimidating you. Did you notice that he did that? It’s a small thing. But an important one. For all the douche-canoes I have heard of, that like to stand behind a woman who is squatting a heavy barbell, there are a dozen men who hold a respectful distance.

These allies, unacknowledged, unthanked. They don’t need a website to tell them that they are never going to understand me. Yet they can support, be respectful, be encouraging. And they do.

This, then, is for my parents. When I told them I had managed to deadlift 50kg after a few months of training, they did not shriek with alarm about how “big” I was going to get. They laughed and said “But that’s more than 100lb! Well done!” This, too, is for my husband. When I told him I was going to start lifting weights, he did not look scared and feel emasculated that I would no longer need him to open jars. He smiled and said, “Have fun!” This, then, is for the fitness instructor who said, “Finally a woman wants to do the weights!” This, then, is for the man in the power-rack before me, who said, “Do you want me to unload my weights or is this your warm-up weight?” His max was my warm-up weight and I appreciated his unforced comment. There was no assumption that I wanted a lighter weight. Small things. But … yes, important ones.

I could have driven myself crazy with the imagined terrors the internet warned me about. The experiences of other women, the online comments, the bad times. And I know I am not immune and some doofus will make a stupid remark at some point.

But hey … I’ve still got those witty come-back lines I need to use, right?


Image credit: http://thorvalkyrie.tumblr.com/post/128129428179/littlemoongoddess-booksomewench

Where Books Start

Guest blog by Autumn Barlow

I sorted out my books this weekend. We’d added ranks of shelves to the alcove by the fire, and were able to finally give homes to about 300 books that had been teetering in piles since I moved in with my husband two years ago.
I was struck by how many pagan and alternative books I had, and how many of those I had forgotten about. The number I have read must double the number I own; books borrowed and books given away.

I was seventeen when I bought my very first book that could be considered “pagan.” I had read an article with a witch in a magazine and wanted to know more; the book suggested in the “further reading” panel was “The Complete Magic Primer” by David Conway. I was nervous as I ordered it in my local bookshop, and that nervousness was compounded when I gave my name to the bookshop owner and he stopped me before I gave my address: “it’s okay. I know where you live.”


After that, I went through Rae Beth’s “Hedgewitch” and Marian Green’s “A Witch Alone: 13 Moons to Master Natural Magic.” At university in Wales, I was distracted by other things and thought I lost my way.

Hindsight shows me I found my way. I became immersed in folk tales, culture, stories, myths and nature. But none of that involved circles and candles and spells so it “didn’t really count.”

The interest in magic matters reared up from time to time. Feeling lost and spiritually empty, I’d scour second hand bookshops and gobble up everything from Ly de Angeles to Caitlin Matthews. Alone in a cottage by a canal in the Midlands, I’d spend evenings on the internet, reading blogs that tended towards purple text on black backgrounds. The irony was lost on me. All I needed to do was step outside.
But it was cold outside.

I became an oral storyteller and I continued to grow herbs because my attempts at vegetables and flowers always failed miserably. I attended some moots in pubs and houses. I encountered a rather ill chaos magician and wandered into some online forums where everyone was a guru of their own universe and I was no wiser as to me, my place, or my point.
So I gave up. I stopped calling myself a pagan. I didn’t follow any of these books’ rules and I didn’t subscribe to any group and I didn’t have a membership card or anything. I clearly was one of those “dabblers” that are looked down upon so snootily. I had no path and no teacher and I didn’t even observe the Wheel of the Year with a homemade altar. I was just one of those “wannabees.”

Where Words End

As I moved around the country, I found solace in attending Quaker meetings. Here, the group sits in patient silence. Sometimes, someone might be moved to speak. Their words may, or may not, have resonance for others. Words are recognised as tricky things. Labels identify and deliminate – if “this” is good then “that” is bad. “This” is “here” and “you” are “there.” Marking the boundaries of our own experience with utterances that only really mean any truth to our own ears restricts our growth and our potential for connection.
“But it’s all we have to communicate,” I am told, “so we must make do with imperfect tools.”

I used to agree with that, and grow sad. The authors of all these books are struggling with all they have to share their visions and must be commended. It’s not their fault if we, the unwise reader, takes their words as – well, gospel, God’s spell – and follows them to the letter. They write with assurance but it doesn’t mean it’s true and what we take from them is our own business, right?

What nonsense. Of course we communicate without words and we have all had this, and it can be a truer experience than any poem or song or 500-page book. That glance. That shared sunset. That tear and that breathless panic. You don’t need words when you just know and this opens all communication up with everything.

No one can tell you how to communicate with a tree because firstly, it’s using words to describe wordlessness, like using cheese to make the sound of a trumpet. Secondly, no one can tell you how to communicate with a heartbroken child either.
You feel helpless, in either situation – tree or child – but you find a way. Somehow. Critical in both is pushing your own ego aside.

Behind Words

So I’ve put all those books up on the top shelf. There are nuggets in them; I’m not dismissing them. But I remember how I rushed from book to book, from author to author, searching for the one secret, the key, the wave of the wand that would reveal everything and make my life all wonderful and easy. It seemed easier to read than to do.

Nothing worth doing is easy.

The books on the lower shelf are far more useful. Fiction and non-fiction, here are the how-to books with not a word of confident instruction in them. Yeats and Charles de Lint, Angela Carter and Marina Warner, Alan Garner and the most prolific author of them all: Anonymous, who, through the centuries, has gathered stories and fables, recipes and remedies, in collections and reprints.

I still don’t go to moots. I still don’t label myself with any one path or grade or level. I read, I walk, I dream, I sing wordlessly, I listen, I dream a bit more, I work hard, I ride, I sometimes think a bit. If anyone asks me what I am, I fluster and change the subject – usually to the topic of bicycles.
My scepticism about words prompts my finger to hover over “delete” even now.

But look. This is just my way. Your mileage… as always… may vary.

Wild Weather

by guest blogger Autumn Barlow

There’s a refrain in a song by Tom McRae where he’s chanting under a swell of orchestra. The storm is rising in me; the storm is rising in me; the blood is rising in me; the blood is rising in me.

They send a shiver through my bones, those lines. They swirl around me when the weather is rough – when the wind howls, the rain batters, and something calls me to run through wild places.

When it drizzles, or it’s cold, I’m like anyone else. I light a fire and curl up with a cup of tea, reading a book or listening to music. But when the weather is truly awful I am tugged outside by something deep and visceral.

Maybe it’s about extremes. The raw physicality of being a small, fleshy, fragile human in the grip of something large, impersonal and unpredictably violent is appealing – it reminds me I’m alive, and challenges me to survive. I’ve been caught in a red-hot dust storm on the Lincolnshire Fens, a frightening and unusual experience in theUK. There’s no shelter for miles on these expansive flat fields, and when the sirocco comes in, fromArabiathey say, it tears through your skin and leave behind a fine dust.

Once, I was walking with a friend to Dolgellau over the foothills of Cadair Idris inNorth Wales. This is an area that demands respect. I worked in the Youth Hostel nearby, and more than once the Mountain Rescue were called out for people who’d wanted to test the story that if you survived a night on Cadair Idris, you’d return a poet – or mad. As we reached the highest point of my journey, a sudden and torrential downpour opened up. We were instantly soaked, and found ourselves buffeted from rock to rock, and my friend launched into the most extraordinary one-man recital of King Lear. It seemed the most appropriate thing to do.

Maybe it’s about The Wild Hunt. When the clouds are being thrown across the sky in a boiling mass of shifting, forming, re-forming grey and black and white and yellow, it’s very easy to see the riders pass overhead, the hounds of Annwn with their red ears and eyes, Hereward – my local folk hero – riding with them.

Maybe it’s more mundane. It is true that I enjoy the storm because I know it will end. It’s a safe danger, for all I talk of violence and mortality. I’m not too likely to be hit by lightning or swept up into the clouds to ride with Arawn. I know that there’s only so wet a person can get, and within a few hours I’ll be at home, bathed, warmed, snug and secure.

Right now the storm is rising in me, and I’m putting my fell-running shoes on.

The song I quote is called a & b. Check it out on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0Xtk5BzVpw. More of my day to day blog at http://autumnbarlow.wordpress.com