Tag Archives: health

Female body shapes

‘Thin’ is a problematic concept that has haunted me my entire life. Like many female-bodied persons, I tend towards curves. I’m aware that I have hips and breasts for breeding purposes. This is not an unusual quality in women. I also have a body that is perfectly willing to build muscle. Muscle does not make you thin. If you have muscles, you won’t have your bones on display.

Being thin depends on not eating too much. It depends on ignoring hunger. Calorie control, for me, means no energy, no means to be physically active. But then, thin doesn’t require you to be physically active, because thin doesn’t have any room in it for decent muscles.

What thin gives you is a delicate, fragile aesthetic. It says that you won’t be able to run away or put up much of a fight. You can easily be carried off. Thin female shapes can suggest pre-pubescence, or being a boy. There may be questions to ask about male tastes that favour girls who look like male children, and women who look easy to overpower.

Fit is a much easier thing to work on, I have found. Fit means choosing good food and not going hungry. It means having the energy to be active, and using that energy to be active. It means enjoying the body rather than denying it. That too, raises questions. Appetite for food is easily linked to other bodily appetites. If you’re working with an angels/whores take on womanhood, then the angles will be thin and unworldly, and the whores will enjoy all carnal things – food, sex, their own bodies… How much is thinness about not being allowed to enjoy your own physical self?

In the fashion industry, I gather the favouring of the very thin body has to do with how clothes sit. If the model is very thin across the pelvis and bust, you know the clothes will hang right regardless of who wears them. Thin is a way to make us all the same, to deny diversity and the reality of body shapes. Bodies are diverse. There would be more art in designing clothes that look good on different body shapes, but high fashion does not appear to be up for this challenge.

Thin is a full time job. You can’t take days off from it. Bodies that think they are living through a famine will store calories as soon as there are extra ones to play with. This is part of why many dieters find their weight yo-yos. Being thin, if it is not your natural body shape, is something you have to think about all the time. I’m not sure how many women have bone thin as their natural body shape. I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who was really thin and who did not have to work at it. Naturally very thin women only seem to exist in films and TV shows, carelessly eating and drinking what they like and staying skinny because they are creatures of the (male?) imagination.

I think the quest to be thin is a dubious pursuit at best. There’s so much shaming of the female body in the industries that benefit from thinness. Imagine how much happier, and healthier we could all be and how much more time and money we could have to invest in other things if we gave up on the shapes we’ve been told to be, and started looking after our bodies with the idea of being fit and healthy instead.

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The need to be useful

When you’re ill, it is important to rest in order to recover. However, the need to feel useful can be a real barrier to this. I think it most afflicts people whose self esteem is tied to their output. If being useful to someone else is how you get to feel ok about yourself, then stopping is really hard. The lower a person’s sense of self worth is, the harder it is for them to feel that resting and recovering might be more important than doing the useful things.

The result can be that if you do stop in order to try and get well, you end up mired in panic and feelings of worthlessness, none of which helps. Especially not when what you’re trying to recover from is depression and/or anxiety.

It certainly doesn’t help that we have a government intent on making us believe that we are either workers or shirkers. We are to believe that hard work is the only thing that can save us from economic ruin (such a big lie). We are told by media and ministers alike that if we aren’t useful, we aren’t worth anything to anyone. Ill people are treated like scroungers and criminals. In that context, who wants to admit they are too ill to work? And so many people end up working when they should not, and making worse the health problems that might have been fixed if they’d felt able to stop.

If you are unable to fend off the idea that you must be useful, but you are also in need of time off, here’s a thought that may help. If you are well and rested, you will be better at doing the things. Your mind will be sharper, you’ll be faster, more efficient, and more effective.

Mostly, the time to tackle the pernicious idea that the measure of our lives is our utility, is not when you’re in a crisis. This is an every day sort of problem. We can challenge it by affirming each other’s rights to rest and to good health. We can remind each other that we should not be cogs in someone else’s profit machine. We can look after each other, and we may at times need to support and take care of those who are being let down by the system. We can campaign for change, and resist the lies of politicians and media alike, overcoming their bile to recognise our shared humanity.

We all need rest, time off, and time to recover when we are ill. Without a doubt, we will all face serious illness at some point – either our own, or that of someone close to us. We need to gently educate the people who are lucky enough not to be really ill, and who are buying into the lies about effort and scrounging. Of course it is tempting to believe it when you seem to be winning, because it means it is your effort keeping you ahead, not pure chance. It gives the illusion of being in control, and that’s a hard illusion to let go of.

We are soft and fragile things, our bodies damage easily, our minds can be broken. We cannot ask ourselves to function like pieces of machinery. We should not have to work ourselves into the ground in order to survive, or to be socially acceptable.


Working when ill

It’s something I’ve done a lot of over many years. One of the advantages of being self employed is that you have some flexibility when sick. You also have no scope whatsoever for sick pay, often there’s no one who can cover for you, and being ill can be expensive in that it can cost you future work. Increasingly, conventional workplaces seem to be pressuring people to work when ill as well.

I know from experience that I’m considerably less efficient when ill. It plays havoc with my concentration. I move slowly, making more mistakes, my judgements are never as good, I don’t have good ideas. There isn’t an ailment out there that won’t be easier and quicker to deal with if you’re able to rest, and won’t be exacerbated by additional stress. And some illnesses are contagious, and taking those to visit other people isn’t nice. The idea of keeping a human working when they’re sick clearly isn’t informed by anything real about the implications of illness.

Over time, there’s a bigger and more insidious impact to working when ill. It dehumanises you. It takes away the sense of being a proper person with the same rights as other people. You’re just a thing to keep slogging along to get the work done. This is one of the ways in which a physical health problem can easily develop into mental health problems as well. Exhausted, demoralised people who are obliged to keep suffering are likely to end up with low self esteem, anxiety and depression at the very least.

I will do the things I absolutely have to do, and then I’m heading back to bed with a book – because I can, and it’s a far better idea. There will be many other people obliged to work a full day today, despite being sick. Some of those people will be doing unpaid domestic work, but that doesn’t guarantee you respite, either. Given that the amount of work available is decreasing as people are replaced by machines, we could collectively square up to this and bring in a citizen’s income, so that no one has to work full time, and no one has to work when they’re ill. Failing that, better worker’s rights and a better social safety net would be a great help.


Work does not save us

Today is not going to plan. Pain and other issues in the night kept me from sleeping, and it’s not the first time in recent days this has happened. Normally I’m working by about 7 in the morning. Today I took the decision to start later in the hopes my body would cope better. It’s not a choice everyone has the luxury of being able to make.

This leaves me wondering what life would look like if health and wellbeing were social priorities rather than work and profit. Wealth without the health to enjoy it isn’t a great deal of joy. But then, the people with the wealth tend to be healthier, the people without as much money tend to have poorer physical health. The stress of poverty causes mental illness.

Working when ill isn’t very efficient. I’ve noticed that in the last year, where I’ve been taking more time off and resting more. I work faster. I get far more done in far less time. The idea of work as an inherent good is not upheld by exploring what happens when I work less. If we’re measuring quality or quantity of output, less time working equates to more and better work done.

Yet we treat more work as the answer to all social problems. We treat it as the answer to poverty, even though the single biggest issue is rent costs and unaffordable mortgages. In the States, the crippling cost is health care, often. Most of us can’t hope to earn our way out of those traps no matter how long or how hard we work. Here in the UK our government seems to have decided that work is also the answer to disability and chronic ill health. Make people work and they will magically get over it. I’m not sure which planet they come from, but I do wish they’d go back there.

We all need the space, time and resources to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to each other. Relentless work doing nothing of much use, just burning up finite resources, is something we need to get rid of. Making things that benefit no one, half of which go rapidly towards landfill, is not an answer. A marketing culture of disposable everything where you throw it away to get the newest one is eco-suicide, and it’s also make-work. There have to be better ways.


Everyone I know is tired

Everyone I know has too much work to do, but not enough time to do it in and not enough energy to do it with.

Everyone I know could do with a decent holiday right now, but having the time to organise it, and the resources to pay for it – that’s a whole other question.

My facebook feed is full of exhausted people struggling on as best they can.

I took a day off yesterday. A whole one. I’ve been doing weekends for about nine months now, but it is hard getting more than 2 days back to back. Today I have to run to catch up on everything i didn’t do because I took a day off.

If you’re working multiple jobs, or your contract doesn’t have proper hours, getting and affording breaks is hard. If you’re self employed, how do you say no to paying work, even when you really, desperately need to rest? Because there’s no knowing when that paying work will dry up. Trying to get ahead so that if things go terribly wrong, you don’t fall into debt.

All that stands between most households and total financial disaster is the next paycheck, assuming it lands.

Being tired does not improve your judgement, or your efficiency. It makes everything harder. Being tired is a stress on the body, and body stresses increase risks of illness, exacerbate conditions and cause mental health problems.

Everyone I know is tired.

This really, really needs to change.

Security has to be more important than job flexibility. There have to be safety nets that people can count on. The role of rest in health – mental and physical –needs taking seriously. Illness is expensive, it isn’t efficient either.


How to heal

Over the last few years I’ve noticed that there are a lot of underlying factors when it comes to healing. These apply to both mental and bodily health – which henceforth I shall just describe as ‘health’.

Most importantly, if you are going to heal, you have to not be living with the thing(s) making you ill in the first place. Otherwise all you can do is tackle symptoms. This is often really hard to achieve, because work life balance, family responsibility and where you live are most likely implicated if your health issues aren’t caused by accident, cancer, virus or bacteria.

Healing requires a good diet. Illness may be caused or exacerbated by poor nutrition. It is important to note that for people in significant poverty, this is often hard to fix because protein is expensive. You need it to heal brain chemistry as much as you do to heal skin or muscle.

Healing requires rest. Rest requires time, peaceful spaces to be in, and being free from the demands of others.

Healing has to be a priority. You need to be able to put it ahead of most if not all other considerations in order to achieve the points I’ve raised above. If you can put your healing first, it is much easier to heal. If you have to prioritise other things – work, family, someone else’s needs… your own healing may take longer, or may be set back.

If these kinds of resources are available to you, then it is easy to get on with the work of making yourself well again – or as well as you can be in the context of what’s made you unwell. At this point, deploy your positive thinking and do what needs doing, and you can get results. However, if your life does not allow you to prioritise healing, if you can’t afford to eat well enough, if you have no way of getting out of the toxic workplace or the mould-filled flat, or the demands on you won’t ease off… healing is difficult and slow if it’s possible at all. All the positive thinking in the world cannot replace what rest, space, good food and the such will achieve.

On the alternative side, we’re too quick to look at the power of positive thinking and we aren’t talking enough about the privileges involved in being able to stop and sort things out. Given the way in which disability increases a person’s risk of financial poverty, there is potential for some truly vicious circles here. Poverty makes you more vulnerable, which increases the odds of not getting over a health setback, which will make you poorer, and more vulnerable to poor health. Illness, accident and health-destroying experiences will, if you don’t have a safety net of some sort, throw you into poverty which reduces your chance of being able to recover. There’s no reason it has to be like this, the choice is purely a consequence of political decisions and priorities.


Uncompetitive physical culture

At school, sports tend to mean competition. There’s no accident in this. A fair few activities have their roots in warrior skills – javelin is the most obvious, but all those combinations of running, riding and shooting are pretty suspicious too. Not that we did that at school! Games and tournaments are the traditional solution for keeping your army fit and keen when you haven’t got anyone to fight. Some sports – football being the most obvious here – come out of ritualised contests between villages. The strength, stamina, co-ordination and sometimes teamwork of sport all has military applications

Like many young people, I never got on with sport at school. The focus on competition was a big part of it. There have to be winners and losers, and when you are always, invariably the loser, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep investing effort. Only when out of school PE and able to explore swimming, walking and dancing on my own terms did I become interested in sweaty things I could do with my body.

I have no problem with the competitive stuff being there for people who want it. That’s no different from battles of the bands sessions, short story competitions, produce shows or bardic chairs… sometimes the people who are really good need the chance to test themselves against each other. But only in sport do young people find themselves obliged to do that testing week after week as they grow up. No one would give an English lesson a week over to slam poetry and rap battles.

Physical intelligence has far more going on in it that competition. There is more to building strength, stamina, fitness and skill than being better than someone else. What would happen to physical culture if we approached activity from the angle of health and capability rather than competition? How many young people would be spared from regular and pointless humiliation? How many would become interested in being fit and healthy rather than feeling alienated from physical culture?

But of course governments like team sports, because of the military applications. There’s a popular quote (of dubious origins) that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It’s that kind of thinking that puts competition ahead of health and embodiment.


The Bouncy Druid

I have a silly body. My circulation is poor, which makes chilblains a risk in winter, but this winter it ratcheted up a notch, and made sitting for long periods unbearable. I had a major editing project on and I needed to sit for long periods. I invested in a haemorrhoids cushion – these are great by the way, and make sitting less painful and as an unexpected side effect, solved lower back pain that has dogged me for more than a decade.

Eventually, I discovered that trampolines are good for circulation issues and for problems with lymph glands swelling up – an issue I’ve had my whole life. Exercise is tricky for me – aside from poor energy (no doubt in part due to the problems I have with exercise) most of my limbs bend the wrong way when under pressure, which hurts. This rules out a lot of things. Anything that jolts, hurts. Running hurts. I only recently figured out that this probably isn’t normal and that most people who run don’t experience pain as I do. My body doesn’t handle lactic acid well, so I get panic attack responses if there’s too much of it in the bloodstream.

I don’t believe in magic bullets, but in the trampoline, I have found something I can do to be active and increase my heart rate without causing me a lot of pain. Swimming worked before I buggered my shoulder, but walking to and from the pool can make it too tiring. Exercise is much easier for people who can drive to places to do things that suit them!

I bounce every hour. I play music to give me a rhythm and a timeframe. It reduces the pain that comes from sitting, and improves my concentration. On the days when I have little energy, it’s really, really hard getting started. However, I learned the hard way that not bouncing hurts far more overall than forcing myself to bounce. On the good days, it’s fun, and there were more good days when I started. The last week or so has been tough. I’ve had to change what I eat because I’m building muscle, and not eating enough protein when your body is trying to build muscle, hurts. On the whole it’s been a really good thing. I’ve used it on the hour every working day, and sometimes when suffering from poor circulation at the weekend, too, for a month now. It helps.

Why the Bouncing Druid? This. You’re welcome.


Thinking about mental illness

How we think about mental illness, collectively, informs how a person who is suffering is able to behave. If we treat mental distress as something to be got over by ‘pulling yourself together’ or as not a real illness, then people suffering have little choice but to slog on, right up until they can’t.

I’ve found from personal experience over the last year, that if I draw direct lines between what I’m experiencing and some kind of bodily ailment, that I can make better choices about how to deal with it. What I’m going to offer here is crude and limited, but I hope it will work as a place to start.

A mild dose is like having a cold. It will probably clear up on its own in a fairly short time frame and it is possible to keep going and do all the things, although I’ll feel shitty and demoralised. Some time off would speed recovery.

A more serious bout is like having the flu – I really am going to need some time off to recover, I won’t be able to keep going as usual. It could knock me about for a few weeks and I’ll need to take things gently.

At its most serious, it’s like having pneumonia. There’s no way to keep going as usual, serious interventions, including medication and hospitalisation can be a consideration. Like pneumonia, serious depression can and does kill people and needs treating with just as much caution.

One of the important things about relating depression and anxiety to physical ailments is that it moves us towards treating the whole process as a bodily condition. I find this incredibly helpful. It’s not a failing, or a lack of will, or insufficient effort, any more than getting the flu is those things. Care and attention are required for recovery, but recovery is possible. For those who are afflicted in the longer term, other bodily analogies may prove more helpful.

Fevers are a useful analogy because when feverish, we can think all kinds of odd things that we wouldn’t believe for a moment when well. We can see and hear things that are illusionary. A breakdown in mental health can have a person thinking and believing all kinds of unhelpful things. If you can hold onto the notion that what’s happening may be a lot like the flu, it’s possible to avoid believing that the fever dreams of anxiety are based in reality. If depression and anxiety are things that are happening to you, not things you are, then it’s a good deal easier to resist them.


Stories about fat

Trigger warnings: weight, diet, body shape. And I’m starting with a trigger warning because this is a subject that puts some people in a very bad place indeed. Like most people my age, I grew up ‘understanding’ that being fat was the simple consequence of eating too much fat. That’s not how it works, and while more information is out there all the time, it doesn’t always filter through. The default is to blame and shame fat, still, which is bloody unhelpful.

It looks increasingly like sugar and refined carbohydrate are a far bigger issue than fat in the diet, and that the sugar industry has led the demonising of fat.

Sleep deprivation encourages us to retain fat. We live in a sleep deprived culture. I don’t know whether it’s because lack of sleep denies us processes that would have helped, or because lack of sleep is a crisis, and in a crisis, some of us store fat. Which leads me to stress – which tells our bodies there’s an emergency going on. For some of us, routinely trying to starve yourself thin can create and emergency that the body responds to by frantically storing everything it can. This was me in my teens, often only eating one meal a day, retaining weight, malnourished and miserable. Stress, and most especially work induced stress, and poverty induced stress are recognised things, but under-explored. There is also a known correlation between poverty and obesity, but no public debate about whether the stress of poverty, contributes alongside poor nutrition, to weight gain. If there were, we’d have to look differently at workplace responsibilities and government policies.

Thyroid function, and water retention and probably a whole heap of other medical conditions I’m not up to speed on can go unnoticed if we obsess over fat in relation to diet. If ‘get more exercise and lose weight’ is the only diagnosis available for the more padded person, other medical conditions – conditions that might well be causing or adding to weight gain – go unnoticed and unchecked. It happens.

Yo-yo dieting is a thing, and a lot of people get trapped in it. Brief attempts at wonder diets that cause weight loss in the shorter term, and then don’t work. This is in part because diets don’t deal with lifestyle as a whole. Wonder diets are often faddy, under-researched and won’t work for everyone, our bodies are different. It’s not just about how we eat, but about what we do with our bodies, how much we move, sleep, rest, and stress is all part of the mix. A happier life may make weight loss very easy, dieting misery can move us towards weight gain. Unhappiness leads to comfort eating, it can make us less active, and adds stresses to life that can help convince our bodies there’s a crisis we need to stock up calories to get through.

I’ve spent much of my life hating and resenting my body shape. I’ve starved myself as a form of punishment for being so disgusting – this is how I’ve felt about myself. Followed by the inevitable binges and the self-loathing those create, leading to a cycle of misery and excess weight. It’s really tough to break out of that self-perpetuating loop. I’ve done so by keeping the focus on doing things that make me happy. I’ve paid attention to how my body responds to foods, and altered my eating to do what feels good. I eat with a view to powering my body for whatever activities I have in mind, not with reference to my stomach size. I feel better about myself. I’ve got out of the punishment cycles and into a process that is about wellbeing and feeling good, and that has made a lot of odds.