A guide to surviving your mid-Twenties

 

A very long time ago (five whole entire years) I graduated from university on my 21st birthday. It was a momentous occasion. I thought I knew everything there was to know because I’d studied philosophy and answered difficult questions about the universe. I thought I knew loss. I thought I knew what life was going to hold. I thought I knew what hard work was. I didn’t know anything. Five years later I’ve learned so much but all I really know for sure is that there’s so much I don’t know. But in honour of my 26th birthday, here are some things I do know.

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Graduating aged 21.

 

Forgive, but don’t forget the lessons you’ve learned.
Forgive your parents for calling you fat as a teenager. Forgive your friend for getting so drunk on your 22nd birthday that you had to take her home and miss your own birthday. Forgive people for big things, forgive them for little things. The space that anger is taking up is all inside you – they probably don’t even know you’re angry. Let go of the anger, but remember the lesson. Be better than others have been.

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Turning 21

You don’t need to be liked by everyone, you don’t need to like everyone, but you should never be a dick.
I used to be so embarrassed about who I was. Then I used to show off about how quirky I was. Both those things are cringeworthy. What do you love? Go with it. I sew my own clothes. I have uttered the phrase “there’s a great song you have to hear by the guy from Deep Purple’s side project band” (it’s seven minutes of glory guys) and I’m not ashamed of that. I cry at adverts, like the Lloyds Bank one where the horse comes home from war. I’m who I am and I’m not ashamed of it. Some people aren’t going to like it and that’s fine, there are some people I just don’t click with either. We’re all adults, we won’t be mean, we won’t be cruel, we’ll just get on with doing us.

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Turning 22


You’re going to make some terrible mistakes
I stayed with a boy who read my diary. I hurt myself because I was afraid to admit that what I wanted wasn’t what everyone else told me I should. I took out an overdraft and a credit card when I really shouldn’t have. These things happen. Take a deep breath, square your shoulders and dig yourself out of the hole.

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Turning 23

Make time for yourself
Stress and burnout are real, and they’re miserable. Real life isn’t like university, you don’t get summers off to recharge. I worked four straight Christmasses after university, and four straight Augusts. I didn’t have two weeks off in a row for four years. That was dumb. I was so burned out I’d lost enthusiasm for everything I liked. I had to relearn how to listen to new music and read novels. Do something just for you at least once a week. Carve out the time. I go to Pilates twice a week, take a bath afterwards, and paint my nails. It’s unashamed me-time and it keeps me sane. Do what works for you, so long as it’s positive. Alcohol does NOT count.

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Turning 24

Stop waiting for the cavalry. You are the cavalry.
My boss said this in a work context the other week and I thought it was amazing and exemplifies so much of what I’ve learned. If you’re waiting to win the lottery, lose 100lbs, for the perfect man or job to fall into your lap, you’re going to be waiting forever. If you want something, go out and try for it. If you don’t know what you want, start by making sure you’re not doing what you don’t want and inch closer to what you do want from there.

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Turning 25

Worse things are going to happen than you can imagine, better things are coming than you can comprehend. 
When I was 22 I was made redundant from a job which although terrible, was the real job I’d ever had. I was single, broke, unemployed, friendless and hopeless. A week later I got the opportunity of a lifetime and got a new job in a field that I’d always wanted to work in. Within a month I had a great job, money in the bank, and had just met the love of my life. Bad things will happen. People you thought you could count on won’t be there for you. Loved ones will die. But new friends will reveal themselves in unexpected places, bad love will give way for good love. Never give up hope, and never judge. Remember the words of Baz Luhrmann: “never congratulate or berate yourself too much. Your choices are half chance”.

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Ready to be 26

And one for the future… Be inspired by people younger than you 
Because you have something to learn from everyone, and something to teach everyone.

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baby Bella one day old.

Keep your body shaming off my commute

A lot of people are going to disagree with Sadiq Khan’s decision to ban body shaming adverts, but I think it’s pretty great. There’s a world of difference between a bikini advert which is effectively saying “look at our bikinis they’re nice you should buy one” and an advert like this which says “you have to look like this to achieve the right to wear a bikini”

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I also think the TfL director’s point that “advertising on our network is unlike TV, online, and print media. Our customers cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them and we have a duty to ensure the copy we carry reflects that unique environment.” is a really good one. You can’t choose to avoid an advert like this as a way of showing your disapproval of it; it’s shoved in your face all the time. When these adverts were on, there was one opposite me on the platform of Tooting Broadway every day and to be honest, it did make me feel a bit shit.

We’ve moved on from the simplistic view that thin models cause women to have eating disorders (whoever could have imagined that eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with multiple causes!). But a relentless barrage of adverts, TV programmes, newspapers, people on social media, friends, colleagues, bosses, politicians, famous people and everyone else telling you “you’re not good enough” is real, and has a real psychological impact.

It’s hard to stay feeling confident about yourself, and your choices, when you’re constantly told they’re not good enough. I used to work in a job where everyone was on a diet. My boss was a size six and lived on cottage cheese and tuna from the can because she wanted to be thinner. Everyone was on the Dukan diet. People stared when I had pasta for lunch. I used to eat my lunch in secret so that I could avoid their stares. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t want to be thin as much as they did.

One of the most insidious trends in modern life is the idea that there is a perfect way to be, which you should be achieving, and if you’re not it somehow undervalues your other achievements. You see it with everything, and the pressure is on men and women: successful entrepreneurs have to be good looking, everyone needs a gorgeous partner, beautiful children, a lovely pug, and a perfect home to be photographed in so they can tag themselves on Instagram #blessed. And for women, underneath it all “you must be thin, above all else, in addition to everything else, and no matter what else”.

I don’t need to go in to how stupid this is as an idea – anyone with half a brain can see that being thin is not in itself something of an achievement. It doesn’t make you healthier, or stronger, or better prepared to tackle life’s challenges. It doesn’t improve your relationships with friends and family, and it doesn’t make you better at your job. And yet the pressure’s on, every day, to live up to this ideal. Adverts like this are the thin end of the wedge, but it’s not the thin end of a censorship wedge. It’s a wedge that threatens to split you open, so that you crack under pressure to be perfect. It’s to knock down your self-esteem because they know that it’s easier to sell things to people who are insecure. It’s to create a need for validation where none previously existed.

A fact I love to tell people is that women never used to face pressure to shave their legs – no one thought women’s legs were hairy enough to need shaving. But during the war, the Gilette shaving company worried that not enough men were buying razors. So they came up with the idea of marketing razors to women to shave their legs. And now every western woman feels self-conscious if their unshaven ankle might peek out of their trouser leg.

Banning a couple of adverts won’t change the world, but I like the message it sends. That advertisers will have to try a little harder for their money, that we don’t want to shame people from the walls of their daily commute, that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to just go to the beach, lie in the sun (with suncream on of course), and just chill the fuck out and be who you are.

 

It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message

I bought a lovely yellow blouse recently and the first time I wore it several colleagues told me it looked nice.  I told them it was from Zara, and they all remarked how much they loved Zara.  “I never normally go in,” I shrugged, “But yeah it’s great.”  They couldn’t believe it – Zara is the de rigeur choice of the fashion-conscious office worker.  Well, that’s not strictly true.  It’s the choice of the fashion-conscious office worker who is a size 12 or smaller.  Because more than 90% of Zara’s clothes are only available in sizes XS-L, and by their own website’s admission, their large falls somewhere between a 12 and a 14.  A quick scan of their website shows that of the 518 different tops on sale right now, only 19 are available in a size XXL, and only 150 in a size XL.  In store, I’ve often noticed that the coolest, most magazine hyped clothes, are only available in XS, S, and M.

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Here I am being far too fat and uncool for Zara and yet somehow still managing to feel happy.

In previous years, I would have ranted about this “it doesn’t make economic sense!  Where’s the capitalism in choosing to exclude half your target market? The average woman in Britain is a size 16 don’t you know?!”.  But the dark truth is that averages hide a multitude of class issues.  There’s an old adage that says that statistics is the discipline that proves the average person has one breast and one testicle, and never is that truer than when looking at size.

Sure, the average woman in the UK may be a size 16, but that size is not evenly distributed.  When I look around me in upmarket Clapham brunch spots, rooftop bars in Shoreditch, popular instagram feeds, and even at the people around me when I get off the tube in Holborn, no one is a size 16.  A toned slenderness is now the ultimate sign of status and wealth – a sign of leisure time, access to an expensive gym, the opportunity to cook and eat healthy meals.  Fat used to be a feminist issue, now it’s a class issue.  If I go home to my parents’ area, it’s a very different story.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive, gyms are expensive – it’s genuinely difficult to eat healthily on a budget, especially if you’re on a zero hours contract or working two jobs and you never know where and when you’re going to be working so you can’t prepare yourself.

When I lived in Catford, there was a headline in the local paper: “46 chicken shops in Catford and NOT ONE GYM”.  It says it all.

What Zara, and others (I’m looking at you, Urban Outfitters, Mango, & Other Stories and more…), have done may be distasteful but it reflects an economic reality that bleating about statistics hides.  Being fat is associated with being poor, and not with aspiration.  They are selling an aspirational image – they want to be seen on the backs of girls brunching in Clapham and dancing in Peckham.  They don’t want to be associated with mere mortals who might have a spare tyre around their waist and might *gasp* be wearing their clothes in such undesirable areas as Catford – let alone somewhere outside of a chi chi urban destination.  They feel that if they were, their cooler, richer customers might no longer wish to be associated with their brand.  It’s like charities who reject donations from noted racists, knowing the good PR they receive will ultimately be better than the money.  “Fat” women are the noted racists in this miserable equation.

There will be some people who think this is a good thing.  That fat people should feel pressured into losing weight.  That being a size 16 is in some way immoral.  That the best clothes should be reserved for the people who look the “best”.  This is bullshit on a variety of levels.  For a start, for a 5’2″ person to be a size 12 is very different from a 5’10” person.  For another thing, if a person has struggled with eating disorders, or is on certain medications, it could be healthier for them to hover at around a size 14-16 than to risk their mental or physical health trying to become a socially approved 10 or 12.  People also carry weight differently – before I gained weight while working in a desk job, I was tiny on my bottom half and slipped easily into Zara sizing.  But I’ve always had broad shoulders, a long back, and large breasts.  I couldn’t be a size 10 up top without major surgery – far too high a cost for fashion.

Of course, Zara knows all these arguments, and so do all the fashion brands that choose to market exclusively to them.  They’ve just decided not to care.  It’s hard to know if body acceptance movements will bring about a change in their opinions or if they’ll stick to their ways.  Either way, it brings a bitter taste to my mouth to know that it’s more economically profitable to judge half your potential customers as a low class liability than it is to cater to all who might want to buy your products.

 

Divine Decadence, Darling

I’m not sure when my love affair with nail polish began.  Maybe it was watching Sally Bowles’ glittering talons in Cabaret, decadent even in the poverty and deprivation of Berlin in the 30s.  Or maybe it was because painted nails were banned at school, and there’s always frisson in the forbidden.  Regardless, for me nail polish was love at first sight.  And since I left my strict school at 16, I honestly don’t think there’s been a single day when I’ve left the house without nail polish on.  And any time friends visit my house, the box is soon lifted off the shelf and “nail polish night” begins.

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My collection, a couple of years ago.  It’s grown since.

It’s gone from a symbol of teenage rebellion to an elaborate ritual, and I think the ritual is half the fun.  Cleaning off the old polish, trimming and shaping the nail, preparing the surface with a base coat, choosing an appropriately stylish colour, and finally adding a quick dry top coat.  Sometimes I go around the edges with a make up brush dipped in nail polish remover to get the splashes off, or just peel them off in the shower the next morning.  Either way, it takes about 45 minutes, and it’s some of the only time in the week that I sit still and take a moment to reflect.  Sure, I could do that without nail polish – but I don’t think I would.  In our busy modern world it feels unbelievably indulgent to spend 45 minutes doing effectively nothing once every five days.  But that’s part of the joy of it.

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Christmas nails

Nail polish is completely pointless, like make up I suppose.  But while make up tends to be done at the beginning of the day or before the night out, nail polish is best done at the end of the day, before bed.  It can be a time of reflection, a time to look back over the day, a time to be still and quiet.  It’s always the same process, and yet it’s always different.  Every week brings a new colour, a new style.

Unfortunately, having waxed lyrical about how wonderful nail polish is, it’s also become a problem for me. I can’t fail to notice how thin and flaky my nails have become, how easily they split, and how often when the nail polish chips it takes a sliver of nail with it.  They aren’t glamorous talons any more, they’re ever shrinking stubs.  So I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that I need to take some time out from my ritual of glamour and let my naked nails see the sun for a few weeks in the hope that it will tempt them back to strength.  It’s going to be funny going out without my armour.

It’s going to be even stranger living without my ritual.  I shall have to think of some new stress-busting evening activities.  Any recommendations gladly accepted.  In the meantime, RIP nails, and may you grow stronger soon.

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smashed up current nails – to be improved

 

FODMAPs week eight: the diet is done!

Apologies for not posting last week, but unfortunately I have just moved house and my new house has no internet! I am typing this from my iPad and really hoping it will work…

So, the diet is done. Eight weeks of abnegation and being “awkward food lady” are finally up and what have I learned?

Well, to start with: the diet works. I haven’t had a single one of the crippling stomach aches which were plaguing me before I started the diet in the last eight weeks. This is obviously good news, although sticking to the diet religiously in the long term is considered by dieticians to be too unhealthy to contemplate, something for all budding orthorexics out there to consider carefully.

When I began the diet, I’d never heard of it, but in the last eight weeks I’ve read two think pieces about modern dieting crazes which both mentione it.  It seems that people are taking up the FODMAP plan without seeing a registered dietician (a nutritionist who talks a lot about toxins does NOT count!) and are continuing it relatively long term.  As someone who has gone through the plan, this shows me the sad state of our eating habits today. It’s true that far too many people are unhealthy, obese, and miserable in their eating habits. But the flip side of this is that far too many people are unhealthy, obsessed, and miserable in their pursuit of healthy eating, cutting out gluten, sugar, dairy, whatever the latest thing is.  One of the other things I’ve learned from this diet is that you can’t be “everything in moderation” combined with a moderately active lifestyle.

Another thing I’ve learned is that we’re all little miss special diet these days – even the men. The number of people I heard explaining that they were allergic to non organic wine, or that they had to eat paleo beggared belief.  In a way, it’s helpful, because it raises awareness that not everyone can just eat anything, and I think people are more aware of genuine digestive problems like IBS or coeliac disease, but it also makes it harder.  People faking it don’t get sick when they eat traces of gluten because they’re not really sensitive to gluten, they’re sensitive to stuffing their faces with carbs all day (seriously, I’ve halved the carbs in my diet and they don’t bother me now). This makes it harder for people with coeliac disease to be taken seriously, because waiters mistake them for attention seekers. Hopefully in time the attention seekers will move on, leaving a better range of gluten free products, and coeliac sufferers will be able to reap the benefits. M

The other big thing I learned was not to be so afraid. A couple of times during the diet I did have to ask if we could switch restaurant because I couldn’t eat anything at the proposed restaurant but you know what? No one said no!  I was so convinced I would miss out entirely on seeing my friends, or even that I might lose friends who couldn’t understand. That absolutely wasn’t the case. My mum may have had difficulty understanding the diet but all my friends were extremely supportive.

The final thing I learned was of course which foods were troublesome to me, and it’s a surprising list: beans, lentils, chickpeas, mushrooms, red onions, diet coke and regular coke, rum, and cider. I’ve also really lost my taste for sweet things, which was happening anyway.  I also learned that you won’t lose weight on this diet, unless you exclude dairy and alcohol as well. Since I finished the diet I’ve been eating more healthily than when I was on it, and I’ve lost the weight that I gained on the diet. But this diet is a diet for health, not for weight loss.

So so there we have it! If you thi you have IBS I would strongly urge you to go to your doctor and discuss it with them.  Cutting out large food groups can leave you vitamin deficient, and can be a sign of compulsive behaviour and eating disorders.

All I want for Christmas is nothing you can buy

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Christmas presents in my flat last year

Christmas as an adult is just plain weird.  It’s a day meant for children.  Father Christmas, stockings under the fireplace, presents you never dreamed of and more food than you can imagine.  When you’re little, the days seem to stretch out forever.  School breaks up and then there’s a WHOLE WEEK until Christmas, which you can fill by decorating the tree, hanging the Christmas cards, visiting friends, and re-reading every Christmas themed book you can find.

Then you get to the day itself and it’s out of this world.  I remember the Christmas I was seven being given £50 by my grandparents and not being able to believe it was all for me – it was more money than I’d ever seen (my pocket money was 70p per week).  I thought it must be to share, and started handing out notes to my family until my mum explained that yes, it really was all for me.  I think that money lasted me a year.

Sometimes I think about that moment of childhood wonder these days, when I take £50 out of a cashpoint on a Friday night and wake up on Saturday afternoon to find it all gone.  Back then, my Christmas lists were wild dreams, based on a complete lack of understanding of the value of money, and a complete thrill at receiving anything at all.

Now, I can buy anything I need.  I’m a middle class professional, I’m not rich by any means (I work in the public sector!), but I have plenty of money to buy the things I need – train fares, bills, food, a few nights out, a couple of midweek dinners, £6 vietnamese for lunch just because it’s so incredibly good, merino wool jumpers from Gap because they’re just so soft.  I can’t afford flashy dinners, or designer clothes, or a rose gold iPhone, but I don’t need those things – and I don’t really want them either.  I have cheapskate taste.  And when it comes to presents, if I can’t afford it, my parents certainly can’t – and I would feel guilty taking such an expensive gift from them.

In the same way, I find it very hard to shop for them.  They’re not very consumerist people and have most of the things they want.  Anything they don’t have but do want (a Skoda Octavia, of all things) I can’t afford to give them.  So buying presents becomes slightly strange.

Trying to come up with a list of things I want this year, I’ve been thinking about what made last Christmas so good.  No arguments, plenty of family time, laughter, and the opportunity to see my friends.

Those are the things I want this Christmas: time, friendship, food, and laughter.  The world is so busy these days, every time I see my friends it’s “oh, it’s been too long” because we’ve been working, and house hunting, and job hunting, and wedding planning, and thesis writing, and we miss each other.  What I want this Christmas is time: time with my friends and family, and time to enjoy myself.

So this Christmas, I’m going to try and make more time for people.  Say yes to more things, instead of panicking and feeling like I need to shop instead.  Because the best present to a busy twenty-something is really a bottle of something cold, a switched-off phone, and a whole evening of not having to think about work or the last train.  Cheers!

FODMAPs week seven: ploughing on towards the end

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I cheated and added soy sauce to this… it’s just so yummy!

This is my second to last week of the FODMAPs diet.  This is my second to last week of the FODMAPs diet! Hallelujah, break out the bunting, because I am bored!

I always knew the FODMAPs diet was going to be hard work, and actually, I don’t think it’s been as hard as I was worried it would be (and I think next week I’m going to write about why as part of my final round-up).  But Christ has it been boring.  Every damn week, every time I need a snack: ready salted crisps.  Every time I need a quick meal: microwave mac and cheese.  Every time I want to eat something delicious: taking out the things that give it variety.

I’ve always thought of myself as being quite a boring eater – happy to eat the same things time and time again.  I’d assumed it was a legacy of being a fussy eater when I was a child.  But actually, while I am happy to eat some things again and again, it’s really only the interesting things that I want to eat like that.

One of my favourite things to do is to take a simple recipe and make it over and over again, adding to it a little each time until it becomes one of those insane secret ingredient recipes that’s a bit of a signature dish.  Take “red soup” for example.  This is a warming dish I started making in winters a few years ago.  It had tomato purée, water, red lentils, red peppers, and some caramelised red onions dropped on top.  It was pretty tasty.  But fast forward two years and that soup is a goddamn work of art.  It involves a red wine reduction, six types of herbs, a special vegan stock cube, chillis, kidney beans, and shredded red cabbage.  It is the reddest of all red soups in the world.  And when you drink/eat it, it makes you feel like you’ll never be cold again.

That’s what I miss from the FODMAPs diet – that sense of inventiveness, and the ability to make a meal out of things that aren’t carbs.  As a vegetarian I am genuinely unsure how I’m going to go without beans, lentils, chickpeas, and other pulses long-term.  I think I’ll be able to get all the nutrients I need, the question is whether or not I can do it without ending up eating way too many carbs along the way.  And I don’t react well to carbs – I get so sleepy and bloated, and always have done since way before I got IBS.

Still, the end of the diet is upon me and the re-introduction phase looms.  Re-introduction is probably a good time to start trying some new foods as well, first up being the incomparable quinoa, super grain which will apparently solve all my problems.  I tried to make my own quinoa once and it was basically horrible, but I’ve been assured by tonnes of people who seem to genuinely like eating that it is actually very tasty.  This week’s task: learn to cook quinoa, just in time for re-introduction.