No stake in the future

Dear Andrea Leadsom,

Thank you for correcting me. I didn’t realise that being born with a condition that rendered me infertile also meant that I have no stake in the future.

Silly me. I might as well have become an arms dealer straight out of university, because why would I care what happens to the world? I obviously shouldn’t have bothered working in the NHS for five years, as a primary school teacher for six, and four years and counting as a youth worker.

I’ve spent a good part of my working life trying to mop up the lives of children whose parents only gained that title because they were too feckless to sort out some contraception. The children of mums who get involved with known paedophiles then tell Social Services “Take my  f***ing kids then, I never f***ing wanted them”. 9 year olds who were born addicted to crack. 15 year olds whose mums smoke pot with them every night. 12 year olds whose Vicky Pollard-esque mums shout humiliating verbal abuse right in their faces in front of everyone at the youth centre, then complain “He’s got anger management!” Kids whose absent dads… Well, I can’t even go there, for legal reasons.

But clearly I don’t need to bother caring about these kids, because they’re not mine and according to Leadsom, DNA is king. The ashen 17 year olds silently feeding their benefit money into the slots at Skegness while their toddler gazes into space sucking a rock dummy… they’re the ones who actually “have a stake in the future”, right Andrea?

Talking of Skegness: Leadsom. Get in the sea.

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Dietland

I’ve just devoured – no pun intended – Dietland by Sarai Walker, a novel about feminism and fat acceptance. It forced me to confront some memories.

I have healthy self-esteem these days, and frequently forget it wasn’t always thus. I was a fat child – not compared to today’s children, arms and legs like Zeppelins – but I was fat for the 1980s. I was always one of the two biggest in my class. Until I was about 9, I recognised my size but I didn’t place a value judgement on it. When I was 8 my teacher Mr R___, who looked like he was smuggling a beach ball down his jumper himself, said “Liv – you’re too fat”. I was taken aback by his rudeness, but I didn’t feel shamed by his words.

The first time I remember being embarrassed by my tummy was when I went clothes shopping with my aunt and chose a green and white striped dress with a belt. She had to take a belt off the next size dress up. I also distinctly remember that my first school uniform skirt – we didn’t have to wear uniform at primary school – was a 26” waist from Woolworths and consequently the hem hung somewhere around mid-calf. I would have been about 9, and that was the start of a decade of feeling excruciatingly embarrassed by my body. I failed my Brownie agility badge because A___ L___ fell over every time I tried to leapfrog her, which I’m sure she was faking at least some of the time. Once we had to create a graph of the class’s waist measurements (WHY? Why would they choose that, not arm length or shoe size or height?) and I was thinking “Pull it tight! Please pull it tight!” knowing that even so my column would be unhideably bigger than everyone else’s.

Combined with a hormonal issue that meant I didn’t grow tits until I was 18, I was left in no doubt that my body was revolting and no boy would ever fancy me. When I was 10 or 11 and my friends started indulging in some pretty heavy snogging – I always laugh when people talk about children being too sexualised these days; they ought to have seen what went on under the oil tank in the third year playground in 1989 – I realised that between my tummy and my flat chest and my glasses, in terms of dating currency, I was Greece. The only boy who openly fancied me, I found so unappealing that I felt humiliated by his attention – a kind of Lisa Simpson and Millhouse situation.

My parents, who had both been thin kids, were not overly sympathetic. Dad came up with a song called “Fat Liv”, including such winning lyrics as “Who got on her bike and both the tyres popped? Fat Liv!” Mum and I decided to make a skirt for me, and somewhat optimistically chose a size 12 pattern. When it failed to meet round the middle, she did not hide her fury.

I was familiar with every diet of the early 90s – the F-plan, the BBC Diet, Mad Lizzie, Rosemary Conley, various diets written for teenaged girls by brisk, unsympathetic authors who clearly thought being overweight represented some sort of moral deficiency. I filled endless notebooks with lists of foods I had eaten that day. I counted grapes. My holy grail was a 26” waist, which if you remember I hadn’t been under since the age of 9. I suppose in between I was comfort eating, but I wouldn’t have recognised it as such. After an afternoon of enforced long-distance running, during which I was repeatedly lapped by S___ D___ (who of course, went onto become a PE teacher), a Toffee Crisp really hit the spot.

Aaah – PE. The nadir of school for fat kids everywhere. It seems almost purposely designed to humiliate the unsporty. We had to make up a dance pretending to be kitchen objects. I was a stand mixer beating egg whites. Then other groups had to copy us. J___ W___, a vision of glamour who had suddenly appeared from Kent in a cloud of Red Door and precocious sexuality, said “I’m going to be Liv”, lent over, pulled a face and jiggled her belly.

In Year 11 Design Technology K___ E___, a weasily shrimp of a boy, called me “Mrs S” because my tits went in and my tummy stuck out. He accompanied this with a finger gesture meant to represent a deflating erection. I laughed along. But I still remember it 24 years later.

In lower sixth I think a boy I liked liked me back, but was too scared of his friend’s reactions to do anything about it. He started going out with one of the in-crowd girls.

In upper sixth I got quite thin – there was a lot going on both good and bad and suddenly food didn’t seem so important.

The first boy who ever saw me naked – thank god, I didn’t lose my virginity to the twat – said “Lose some weight, will you?” I was a UK size 10-12 at the time.

Shortly after that I fell in love, and we were together for a decade, and I owe 99% of my self-esteem to him because for all his faults as a boyfriend he never let me think I was anything less than beautiful. I knew something had changed inside when a deranged aunt greeted me one Christmas and announced “Liv! You’ve got quite round!” and I retaliated “Yes, and you’ve got quite old.”

The last time someone tried to fat-shame me was at a great-aunt’s funeral in 2004. I was 27. Some wizened old crone, about 4’9” of bile and unconvincingly black hair, started to say something about her jacket as she’d accidentally gone to put mine on – I can’t quite remember, but the punchline, having clocked all 5’8” and 158lbs of me, was “big”. I thought how pathetic she was, but I was annoyed that the relatives I was talking to sniggered.

Which brings me to now. I’ve settled around 11 stone which is the top end of “normal” in BMI-speak. The fat sits where it always has: my arms and legs are skinny and all the weight’s on my tummy. I do keep an eye on my weight, but it’s in the same way that I keep an eye on my dogs’ weight – I don’t want to store up health problems for the future or have to limit my walking because my knees are fucked.

I have stayed pretty much the same size and the world has grown fat around me, so I now I have the interesting experience of being in the thinner camp. I can’t say I don’t secretly love it when I see  someone who was horrible to me at school and they are now massive, but it is the worst part of me.

If I see one more smug Twitter update that says “Eat less, move more” I shall scream. I get frustrated that some thin people are so fucking PROUD of it. I firmly believe there are mechanisms around weight gain – grehlin, leptin, microbes in the gut, I don’t know – that mean some people have a propensity to weight gain and others don’t  but no, they won’t have it, it’s their iron self-control to thank!

I work with a lot of fat women and a lot of thin women and they are equally obsessed with food. One friend – size 10 max – picks the croutons out of salads, and goes to WeightWatchers for six weeks before holidays so she can look good for the first day on the beach. Another very slim friend is urgently trying to lose 6lbs because her son’s girlfriend is joining them on a family holiday. Why would you even try to compete with a girl 30 years your junior? Hers is a life of constant self-denial. She drinks Diet Pepsi to alleviate her sugar cravings and goes to the gym first thing every day. When she lets herself off the leash she can eat a whole cheesecake. We were talking about our eating habits one day, and she commented that my diet sounded pretty healthy and if I gave up drinking I’d “probably be really small”. My genuine first thought was “And that would improve my life how…?”

Because, the truth is, I don’t want to be one of the “fuckables”. I am perfectly happy being average looking. If a man chooses to talk to me I want it to be because I’m interesting, or funny, or intelligent – not because he’s leering at my tits. I can’t imagine anything more exhausting than everyone wanting a piece of me. I loathe flirty men and on the occasions I‘ve been chatted up I’ve found it absolutely cringeworthy. The thought of being wanked over isn’t flattering, it’s disgusting. My preferred style of dress is more “rag doll” than “sexy” – I don’t think I’ve ever owned stilettoes. Maybe this is because men I fancy are very few and far between, so I am equally happy only to be fancied by the few. I actually look my best undressed – I’m always moisturised and perfumed and wearing pretty lingerie – then the clothes get less and less glamorous with each layer, up to and including a dog walking coat that looks like a brown duvet, and wellies. I like that my husband gets the best of me. It is appropriate.

I’m not saying that I am totally happy with my body. We have mirror doors on the wardrobe, and catching myself naked in those when I’m bent double cutting my toenails is rarely a high point. But I am comfortable with it. My body has got me through 39 years on this planet and will, God willing get me through 39 more. I can easily walk five miles with the dogs. I am rarely in pain. Heavens above, one of my friends is on the waiting list for a lung transplant – it would be rude if I ended up bitching about my own dear, precious body.

Dietland has made me cross, but in a good way. There was never anything wrong with me. I was a gentle, kind kid and I didn’t deserve to spend a decade feeling repulsive. In the same way that I support animal rights even though I am not a cat, I am going to be more vocal about fat-shaming and I am going to check myself when tempted to use “fat” as an insult rather than an adjective. And I will never, ever collude with Fuckability.

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Guilttrip

I inherited more characteristics from my dad than my mum, but one I did get was a PhD in guilt. I always put Mum’s down to her fire-and-brimstone Baptist upbringing, but as the closest I got to organised religion was a few desultory Sunday school visits aged 9, maybe it has a genetic basis.

I feel guilty virtually all the time, it’s like a little bubbling undercurrent of crud. I can feel the weight of it on my shoulders, like a small yoke.

I feel guilty that I ruined my parent’s lives by going to university and moving away from Suffolk. (Of course, if I hadn’t, I’d feel guilty that I hadn’t gone to Uni.) I feel guilty that the university I went to was Leicester and not Oxbridge, based solely on a throwaway comment made to my grandad when I was in primary school. I feel guilty that I never play the piano any more, and that I gave up before I got to Grade 8.

I feel guilty about two men I left in my 20s, who are both happily married with children.

When I was a medical secretary I felt guilty that I wasn’t using my degree. When I was a teacher I felt guilty that I was squandering my one precious life in a job I hated. Now, I feel super-guilty that I work part time. I feel guilty when my husband goes off to work early; I feel guilty if the house isn’t spotless when he gets home. I feel guilty that I am not contributing more to society or household finances. At work, I feel guilty that the dogs are by themselves. On my days off I feel guilty if I am enjoying myself, because my husband’s stuck in an office, and I feel guilty if I’m not enjoying myself, because what’s the point of working part time otherwise?

I feel a bit guilty that I don’t have children, even though I CAN’T HAVE children.

I feel guilty if I go too long without visiting my parents and I feel guilty at expecting my husband to drive 140 miles on a Friday night to visit them.  I feel guilty if I abandon him to go down on my own. I feel guilty if I don’t see “all the family” in the course of a weekend; I feel guilty if I do squeeze everyone in and therefore spend less time with mum and dad.

I feel guilty that I don’t remember to brush the dogs every day.

I tell my husband some of this over dinner. He looks at me as if I’m faintly deranged.

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Big Issue Please

I have very mixed feelings about The Big Issue – the magazine sold by homeless and vulnerably housed people with the strapline “a hand up, not a handout”.

I have no doubt that it was founded on the noblest of principles, but I can’t help suspecting these are not always upheld. The Big Issue can’t seem to decide whether it is a legitimate small business (in which case, I should feel no more guilty for not buying a copy than I do walking past a market stall) or a charity. The magazine stresses that its vendors are “working not begging”, yet in this week’s issue the editor talks about the “immorality” of taking more food than you need from a supermarket (e.g. BOGOF deals) and suggesting you donate the second item to a Big Issue seller.

I also wonder, when I go back to my hometown of Aldeburgh and see foreign Big Issue sellers standing in the High Street. The cynical part of me wonders how they got there; the immigrant population there is virtually zero. Where do they live? They’re certainly not sleeping rough in Aldeburgh.

What’s brought this to a head is that today I did buy a Big Issue and, after a few niceties with the vendor, she asked me outright for extra money. I ended up giving her a fiver on top of £3 for the actual magazine, torn between thinking “Hang on, that’s not how it’s meant to work,” and “I wouldn’t have wanted my sister standing out in the cold all day when she was 7 months pregnant.” She’s kind of shot herself in the foot, though, pregnant or not I’m not going to rush back to end up paying £8 for a magazine I won’t even read.

It’s a tricky one. I really, really worry about homelessness: no cold night goes by without I wince thinking of all the people sleeping in boxes. I’m just not sure that The Big Issue is the model to help.

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Why can’t people just say what they mean?

Over the last few years I have become a great fan of honesty. I’m not advocating tactlessness, and certainly not the “I speak as I find” attitude stereotypical of middle-aged Yorkshiremen, who having made their pronouncement then go on to be as disagreeable as possible.

I know many people who would rather set fire to their eyebrows than tell you what they actually want, and it drives me mad. Even when a simple question such as “Where do you want to walk?” requires me to decode the given response to try to work out what they’re really angling for. It would save an awful lot of time and energy if they just gave me the information I had asked for. Because that’s all it is: an exchange of information. I am not going to feel personally rejected if I say “Do you fancy pizza tonight?” and get the response “Not really.”

Discussing this with a similarly direct friend last week, we both find ourselves accused of being “selfish” or “difficult” because we actually say what we want. I would argue that we’re actually being considerably less selfish than the mealy-mouthed sorts. Someone asks us a question; we respond honestly; everyone knows where they stand. The only reason to skirt the truth is because you don’t want to risk someone disliking your answer. Ergo, you expect us all to spend hours second-guessing you, trying to work out what would really make you happy. That sounds quite “difficult” to me – and not a little manipulative.

Of course I don’t always want to give a truthful answer, but it is invariably better to gird your loins and say it than spend ages hunting round for an excuse. A year ago someone wanted me to apply for a different job. I knew I didn’t want it straight away, because it was a lot more work for only a little more money. Instead I fretted for three weeks then made a pathetic flurry of excuses citing “commitment to my current project” and other flimsy stuff. Looking back, why didn’t I just say “You’re not paying enough”? It would have saved the employer a lot of time, and possibly helped them to understand why they were struggling to recruit.

We are raised not to disappoint people, and I would tentatively postulate girls even more so, but come on… Try a bit of honesty with your coffee. You might find it quite liberating.

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One electric piano, barely used

I have an electric piano in my hall. It gathers dust, cat foot prints and temporary random articles that have no other home, and I have played it precisely once in 5 years. I want to get rid of the piano. Can I get rid of the piano? No.

Just because a child is good at something doesn’t mean they WANT to pursue it as a hobby. I started playing the piano at 6. It came very easily to me – I wasn’t a child prodigy but I got grade 2 aged 8, grade 4 aged 11, and following a hiatus when I failed grade 5 (at the time this felt akin to accidental manslaughter), passed grade 6 at 14. I finally got to give it up at 15, having usefully broken my wrist a few weeks before I was due to take Grade 7.

Although there were times when I got pleasure from it, mostly I associate playing the piano with tedium, terror and constantly feeling inadequate, even though looking back I was outstanding for my age. I loathed practicing with a passion, and vividly remember the hot drip of lead in my stomach that came from being driven to a straight-after-school lesson knowing I hadn’t touched a keyboard since the previous one. Taking my piano exams remains the single most terrifying thing I have done.

I was unpopular enough at school anyway, on account of being studious and a bit fat, and being wheeled out to perform in Assembly was torture for me. I did join the school orchestra when I was 11, which I enjoyed because compared to everyone else scraping painfully away on their school-supplied string instruments I was fucking Mozart. But one day, playing a complicated piece we’d only just started learning, I agreed with the orchestra leader that I would just do the right hand bit. From how my actual piano teacher, Miss Dowling, exploded afterwards you’d think I’d deliberately strangled a puppy. “No pupil of MINE is going to sit there playing one handed in front of everybody!” she raged after school. Looking back, Miss Dowling was a control freak, and told me aged 7 I couldn’t play in front of other people without asking her first. Family gatherings thus became tense occasions, with elderly relatives urging me to play for them, while I sincerely believed I wasn’t allowed to. Clearly my enjoyment of the instrument was much less important than Miss Dowling’s glory as this bespectacled little tot reeled off arpeggios her fingers were only just long enough to reach.

Words I associate with my pianistic career are frustration, lack of control and the weight of expectation. I can’t really see why my parents couldn’t see how unhappy it made me, but the one time I tried to discuss it, the hurt looks on their faces immediately closed the discussion. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have been encouraged, but for a kid to feel like their hobby is life-or-death isn’t very healthy.

I spent my 21st birthday money on this electric piano thinking that I was past all of that and could just play for fun, but it never really worked. I was – literally – very out of practice, and every wrong finger or misjudged trill jarred my ears. When you’ve been good, it’s really hard not to be at that level any more. In the subsequent 15 years, the electric piano has moved house with me three times. All it does it take up space and make me feel alternately resentful or guilty, but I can’t seem to summon the courage to sell the bloody thing.

I suspect every one of us has things we should get rid of but can’t. What’s yours?

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Spark

I’ve started and discarded this post any number of times in the last 48 hours, mainly because I don’t want to come across as an up-myself twat. Two drinks in, fuck it.

How important is spark in a relationship? Lots of people seem to end up with partners, even spouses, that they don’t particularly fancy. I was sitting with a 29-year-old friend, married just shy of four years, outside the pub yesterday and she was bravely defending what great friends she and her husband are, tacitly writing off any relationship involving lust as “juvenile”.

I said (because I’m tactful like that) “Put it this way: if J walked up the street right now, I’d get butterflies” and she replied “I don’t think I’ve ever had that reaction to R.”

I feel for her, I really feel for her, because for much of my 20s I was in a similar state, desperately trying to convince myself that being best friends was “an excellent foundation for a relationship, actually”. It’s only since I’ve been with someone I truly, helplessly fancy that I’ve realised how important spark is. I wasn’t instantly attracted to my husband when we met, but as soon as I was, I was hooked. I could eat the boy alive. I can quite honestly say I haven’t fancied anyone else in 7 years. Even my wank fantasy is him, a photo taken when he was 21 or 22, looking particularly glorious and fuckable.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope my young friend and her husband raise a host of babies and spend eternity contently side-by-side in some suburban churchyard. It wouldn’t be for me, though.

A novelist once said something along the lines of “A relationship needs attraction, affection and respect. Get two out of three and you’re happy. Three out of three and you’ve got heaven on earth.”

Here’s to heaven on earth.

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