I Want It All

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This month, I’ve been asking people to nominate me for a Cosmo Lifestyle Influencer Award. I’ve asked people for nominations like this before and normally, it goes something like this:

*shy wave* Oh, hello, I was thinking, er, maybe, if you’re not too busy, you might nominate me for this little thing. *runs away*

I cocoon myself in relatable, cutesy self deprecation because god forbid I own up to actually wanting things, or worse, thinking I deserve things. Writing is a bit of a funny thing. It’s something I do for fun because I like to be creative and it helps me to work through my thoughts and figure out how I really feel about things. When I write, mostly I’m writing for me. But it would be an absolute barefaced lie for me to say that I don’t care if anyone reads my stuff. Because when I write, I’m also writing for you. I write because I feel like I have something worthwhile to say. I write because I think that maybe my words will make someone feel less alone, less weird, less hopeless. I write because I want to make people feel things. But when I admit that, I’m also admitting that I think I have the talent to do that.

There’s a blogger who I’ve followed for a long time, who has just landed a regular column in Grazia magazine. In part, this happened because she is wildly talented. But mainly, it happened because she spent three full days putting together a proposal for her column, including three sample columns, so that the editors would get a feel for her voice. She spent three days putting together a package that said “I want this. I deserve this. And here’s why you absolutely can’t disagree.” She completely, unabashedly backed herself. And it paid off.

I spent my first year in London working as a temp. I interviewed for a whole bunch of permanent jobs and got turned down for every one of them. Do you know why? Because I prized my likeability over my ability to do the job and saw the two as totally incompatible. After a year of wondering whether I’d still have a job next month, I got angry. I was invited to interview for the job I was doing on a permanent basis for the third time and this time, I went in with the attitude of “Here’s why you absolutely cannot afford not to hire me.” One of the interview questions was “If your team mates were to describe you in one word, what would it be?” The first time, I answered “enthusiastic”. This time, I answered “competent”. They offered me the job on the spot.

I sometimes wonder how much earlier I could have gotten the job if I’d been less embarrassed about owning my shit and admitting that I actually thought I was up to it. Because here’s the thing: self deprecation is all well and good on Twitter or with your friends but if you’re going for a job, pitching an article or asking folks to nominate you for an award, people have no reason not to believe you if you tell them that you’re mediocre. It takes balls to ask for the things you think you deserve. It takes balls to commit to working hard for something. It takes balls to take yourself seriously. Because sometimes, you do all that and it still doesn’t pan out. But really, what else is there? So here we are. I’m owning up. I want people to read my words, and I think I’m talented enough to achieve that. I want to be published in lots of different places, and I think I’m talented enough to achieve that. I want to write an amazing book, and I think I’m talented enough to achieve that. It’s scary, admitting that you have the ability to do something, because then you have no excuse not to work your ass off and do it. But I’m over getting in my own damn way. I’m finally convinced that I deserve the things I want.

Now, to work on convincing everybody else.

The Numbers Game

I don’t know where my love of numbers came from. It certainly didn’t come from a love of maths. As a kid, I was good at maths but as the result of a long, hard slog. It never came naturally and even now, mental maths sends me into a mild panic. But counting things? That came so naturally that I barely noticed it happening.

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I know how many steps I’ve taken today. I know how many books I’ve read this year. I know how many years it will take me to pay off my student loan.

All good things to know.

I also know that if I get to my bus stop by 5:15, I’ll probably get home by 6. I know that if the traffic is heavy and the bus doesn’t round a certain corner by 5:30, I probably won’t. Sometimes, if it’s close and I’m not sure whether the bus will make the corner, my heart starts to pound. I panic, just a little. That two minute space between “before 6” and “after 6” becomes huge and important.

I know how much money I’d need to retire right now and how many years it would take me to save it at my current rate – about 300.

Sometimes I find myself counting steps or seconds, just because.

If Niall goes back to Ireland to stay with his family, it’s more than likely that I know how many hours it’ll be before he walks back through the door. I refresh the airport arrivals page, I check train times, I memorize bus routes. I miss him when he’s gone, of course, but more than that, I just want to know.

Whether I’m working on a manuscript for National Novel Writing Month or watching my fundraising total for Race for Life rise, monitoring graphs, hitting targets and working out averages fills me with utter glee. And I don’t think I’m the only one. People are using Fitbits to count their steps and track their sleep. They’re downloading apps which log how much water they’ve drunk and sprout cartoon flowers accordingly. An iPhone is an information lover’s dream, crunching the random strings of numbers that make up our day to day lives and spitting out graphs and charts that we peer at, hoping they’ll reveal some larger truth to us.

Because that’s what it’s all about, really. If I can count things, if I can quantify them, then I can understand them. And if I can understand them, maybe I can control them. I remember my maths teacher taking great delight in my love for Sudoku puzzles but puzzles aren’t really about numbers at all. They’re about order. They’re about logical, discernible patterns. The knowledge that if you follow the rightt steps, you will reach a neat, satisfying, correct conclusion.

I’ve always liked to know things. I’m sure my parents still have traumatic flashbacks of that trademark children’s refrain – But why? I’ve never liked being unsure. Being twenty-four years old and not really knowing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, in a time where it feels like the world is spiraling ever further out of control, I think I crave that comforting sense of completion that comes at the end of a riddle. Of course I know that there’s no blueprint to life, no magic formula that leads to happiness. Logically, I know this. But still I crunch my little numbers, hoping that if I think hard enough or look at them in a certain way, the pattern will reveal itself. The world is vast and pregnant with possibilities, every one more unpredictable than the last. Sometimes things happen for no reason at all. Sometimes things are bitterly unfair. Sometimes you try your very hardest and it doesn’t work out anyway. I’m not religious, but I understand why many people are. Religion is a pattern of its own, assuring people that somewhere, someone has a larger plan. That it’ll all be okay. That people will get what they deserve, good or bad, in the end. Some people have God. I have numbers.

Apple Therapie

Do you remember that scene in Bruce Almighty where everything gets really out of control, so Bruce goes and mops a load of floors? I think about that a lot. I realise that an old Jim Carrey movie might be a slightly odd place to look for life lessons but inspiration comes in many forms.

Sometimes I feel really overwhelmed, often for no reason at all. One of the worst things about having a powerful imagination is that you spend a lot of time powerfully imagining that everything is going wrong. Some days, out of nowhere, I’ll feel as though someone has yanked the rug out from underneath me and I’m struggling, teetering, trying not to fall. When that happens, all I can do is press reset. And pressing reset usually involves doing something simple, something methodical, something that forces you to slow down and take your time. For some people, it might involve mopping a whole lot of floors. It might be alphabetising your bookshelf or colouring in or writing a letter. For me, it’s baking a pie.

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I measure out 260g of plain flour. I use a cup to measure, so I’m never sure how close to 260g I actually am. It doesn’t matter. This doesn’t have to be precise. I add 150g of hard butter, cut into cubes. Using my fingertips, I gently rub the flour into the butter cubes until I’m left with a mixture that looks like fine breadcrumbs. Don’t squash your mixture. Take your time, I tell myself. There’s no rush. I close my eyes and take a deep breath and I feel the soft flour and the cold butter in my hands. I feel the puffs of powder that escape from my bowl and coat the kitchen worktop. Inevitably, I end up with a smudge of flour on my nose. That is fine.

I add cold water, tiny bit by tiny bit, mixing with a knife until a dough starts to form. Every time, I’m sure my mix isn’t going to come together. Every time, it does. I think about that a lot. I get my hands in and knead it a little until it forms a smooth ball. I wrap the ball in clingfilm and put it in my fridge while I prepare my apples.

I use between 3 and 5 green apples, depending on how big they are. Bramley apples are best, but any tart green apple will work. I promise, it’ll still be delicious. I peel each apple in one huge, snaking twist and drop the rind on the counter like my Auntie Kathleen taught me, to see the initial of the person I’m going to marry. I wonder if I know anyone whose name begins with an “O”. I chop my apples. If you like a chunky pie, chop large pieces. If you like it smoother, chop little ones. Both are delicious.

I put my apples in a big pot with a splash of water and I sprinkle over a few tablespoons of soft brown sugar. I turn the heat on very, very low and put on the lid. Every so often, I take off the lid to stir and watch the sugar turn to caramel and let the drunken smell of sharp stewing apples fill my tiny kitchen. You can add cinnamon if you want to. I don’t. After about 15/20 minutes, I turn off the heat and let my apples cool down a little.

I push everything to the side, because our kitchen is so little that there’s only really one surface. I dust the worktop with flour. I usually dust everything else in the kitchen with flour at the same time. I have a rolling pin now, like a proper grown up, but until recently, I just used a litre bottle filled with cold water. This works just the same and helps keep your pastry nice and cold. I don’t have a pie dish, so I grease a round cake tin. The best thing about making pie is that you can almost always make do with what you have. It always works out fine.

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I take my pastry out of the fridge and chop a third of it off. This will be the lid of the pie. I drop the bigger piece onto my floury surface and knead it into a big circle. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it sticks to the surface. This is okay. It can be fixed with a dab of water or a smattering of flour. I carefully place my dough circle into my cake tin and use a little blob of dough to push it into the base. I trim off the untidy outside with a sharp knife. I pour in my apple mix. It’s almost always too hot. It always, always smells divine. I roll out my pie top and press it over the apples, using a fork to crimp the edges. This makes it look like a cartoon pie. This makes me smile. I roll out my trimmed edges and slice and press them into beautiful patterns. I make enormous flowers and pretty, lined leaves. I place my decorations on top of the pie and brush the whole thing with a beaten egg. If you have a pastry brush, use that. I dab it on with kitchen roll.

I realise I’ve forgotten to preheat my oven. I roll my eyes, but I don’t beat myself up. I’m feeling gentle. I’m feeling like being kind to myself. I set the oven to 200C and put the pie in straight away. I’m dimly aware that this probably isn’t the right thing to do but it doesn’t seem to matter. I leave the pie in the oven for half an hour while I clean the flour from every nook of the tiny kitchen.

After half an hour, the pie is golden and crisp. If it isn’t, I stick it back in the oven and put the kettle on. Once it’s ready, I pop it out of the cake tin and put it on a plate. I take a photo. I give myself a second to congratulate myself on making something so pretty. I put a little icing sugar in a sieve and sprinkle it over the top of the pie. I feel like a fancy chef when I do this. I cut a slice straight away, even though it hasn’t cooled and the hot apple oozes out. I pour double cream on mine, much more than is really reasonable. You can put ice cream or custard on yours if you like. I make myself a cup of tea. I sit in my comfiest seat, take a deep breath and eat an enormous forkful.

It’s never perfect. It’s usually messy. It tastes wonderful. Always.

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Being Brave, Being Vain, Being Fiona

I have a complicated relationship with beautiful. I’ve always been more likely to be called “striking” or “interesting” than “beautiful”, and always more likely to be called “funny” or “smart” than either of those. In my heart, I know that is an absolute strength. If I had to choose between funny and beautiful, I’d pick funny every single time, no questions asked. I know that I’m so much more than beautiful, that a beautiful face pales in comparison with a kind heart, a strong mind, a creative soul. And yet. And yet.

Like many girls, my “interesting” beauty became a battleground when I was a teenager. The frizzy hair, the generous nose, the chest so flat you could build an airport on it, they all became markers for how different I was. And I spent an unholy amount of my teenagedom wishing that I could just be the same.

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It’s exhausting being at war with your own face, you guys. Eventually, there came a point where I was too tired to keep hating myself, so I decided I was going have to love myself instead. I spent time getting to know my body, because it’s impossible to love something that’s a stranger to you. I started to notice my details. The smattering of chocolate drop freckles. The cupid’s bow you could cut yourself on. The stretch marks curving around my hips like silver lightning strikes. I dyed my hair red. I started to wear the brightest lipstick I could get my hands on. I started to upload selfies with gay abandon. When I felt ugly, I wanted to make myself smaller. After so many years of that, feeling beautiful feels like a brave, tiny rebellion.

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It’s also terrifying. See, women are supposed to be pretty but we’re absolutely not supposed to notice that we’re pretty. And we’re certainly not supposed to take any pleasure from it. We’re not to know we’re beautiful. That’s what makes us beautiful.

*One Direction dance break, because even though the message of that song is trash, it’s still an absolute tune*

There’s a photographer called Alex Cameron, who takes the most wonderful photographs. The first time I saw her photos, I thought “I want pictures of me that are that beautiful”. I was immediately ashamed that I wanted that. How trivial. How frivolous. How vain. For two years, I watched her photos pop up on my Twitter timeline and every time I saw them, I turned the idea over in my head. I’d justify and argue with myself and agonise because I was still embarrassed to admit that I wanted to look at myself and love how I looked.

F5Last week, I got on a train with a backpack full of my most favourite dresses and I asked Alex to make me gorgeous. I twirled and giggled and wrapped myself in leaves and flowers. I gleefully agreed when Alex complimented my bright hair, my green eyes. I loudly exclaimed “I FEEL LIKE A FAIRY PRINCESS” about seventeen times.

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When she started to send me the photographs, my mouth fell open. She hadn’t changed me or airbrushed me. She hadn’t smoothed my personality over. My flyaway hair, my crooked nose, my goofy smile spilled from every single picture. All of my details, my gorgeous imperfections laid bare. I looked undoubtedly, unabashedly like me. Like no one else. I looked striking. I looked interesting. And I looked so, so beautiful.

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When Everything Is Broken

Everything has gotten a little bit out of hand, hasn’t it? The EU is broken. America is broken. The economy is broken. The Labour party is broken. The Conservatives are miraculously unbroken, which means that everything else in the UK is likely to be broken very soon. It feels like the past month has been a constant cycle of bad news layered on bad news layered on bad news and it’s hard not to feel as though everything is spinning out of control.

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I don’t know how to fix this level of broken. I really don’t. I don’t know how we get back from this, although I’m sure we will, somehow. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling helpless or powerless, and for the most part, I express this by turning into a giant howling ragemonster. But that’s not totally sustainable. And I’m gonna be honest with you guys, I’m tired. I am rage overtired and it’s making me want to melt into a little despondent puddle on my living room floor. Here’s what I’m doing to stop that:

I’m Surrounding Myself With My People

My Twitter is something of an echo chamber, filled with people who broadly share a lot of my beliefs and values. There are good and bad things about this, but right now, it’s exactly what I need. When it feels like the world might be populated exclusively by terrified, hateful people, it’s quite wonderful to be reminded that there are kind, soft, brave, generous people out there too. My entire Twitter community has banded together, some organising action and protest, some sharing sweet, fluffy news stories among all the chaos, some just offering a much needed hand squeeze. I purposefully surround myself with people who inspire me and god knows, I need a bit of inspiration right now.

I’m Doing What I Can

When you’re fighting a mess as big as this one, it’s easy to feel so paralyzed by the enormity of it that you end up doing nothing at all. When the entire world seems to be crumbling around you, where on earth are you supposed to start?

I’d say, start anywhere.

When the Conservatives won the general election last year, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t let their brutality turn me cold or cynical. I promised that I would respond to their cruelty with kindness. I’m trying to do the same thing now. I give a tiny amount each month to the Trussell Trust and Centrepoint. I buy the Big Issue whenever I have enough change in my purse. Last week, I took a huge suitcase of supplies to the amazing Sisters Uncut, who are occupying an empty council house in Hackney and running free breakfast clubs for local kids.

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Realistically, not one of these things is going to fix all the things that have been broken. Realistically, I probably haven’t made any difference to the big picture. But maybe, somewhere in the UK, someone is eating a hot meal or sleeping in a warm bed or a child is going to school with a full tummy because of me. And that’s no small thing. Among all the headlines and the statistics and the political turmoil, people are hurting. Change can be slow and while we fight for it, people are hurting. There is nothing insignificant about reaching out a hand to someone who needs it, if you can. I can’t fix this mess. I’m not powerful enough or brave enough or clever enough. But I’m lucky enough to have things to share. So what I can do is be kind. And I intend to keep doing that for as long as I possibly can, hoping that some day, all of our tiny baby steps might add up to something bigger. How do you eat an elephant? One damn forkful at a time. Maybe we can eat the Tories the same way.

I’m Giving Myself a Break

More than once in the last month, I have felt like I was drowning. More than once in the last month, I have lain face down on my living room floor because I didn’t know how else to express the hopelessness I was feeling. It is so, so important that we are all fighting the good fight right now, but my darlings, you are of no use to anyone if you’re completely burnt out. I am giving you permission, right now, no matter how grim things get, to switch off. To turn off the news and binge watch a series of Pretty Little Liars. To do a happy dance in the street because you caught a Pikachu in the local park. To go see Ghostbusters and furiously tweet about how much you fancy Kate McKinnon. Just because there are bigger, more important things to worry about does not mean that you don’t get to be happy. Not allowing yourself to be consumed by all this badness doesn’t make you selfish or ignorant. It looks like we might be fighting this fight for a very long time to come, so we need you strong, my love. Take care of yourself. Feed your soul as well as your anger. Keep that little light inside you burning, whatever it takes. Take my hand, and we’ll fight together.

Making Things

I’m a creative fidget. The drafts folder of my blog is a graveyard of half-baked ideas and half-scribbled rants that I thought better of. My dining table is littered with colouring books, a few pages coloured in each. I have a travel journal with four beautiful entries in it. I have a Youtube channel with a few fuzzy, poorly shot videos. I have a scrapbook that tailed off after my first year of university. I have an ever-growing list of happy things that goes for weeks, months without being updated.

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Recently, I’ve been obsessively bingeing on Emma Gannon’s wonderful Ctrl Alt Delete podcast, where she interviews women who have inspired her creatively.

(If you are not also bingeing this podcast, what is even the point in you having internet access?)

In one particularly marvellous episode, she interviews comedian and general creative gal, Stevie Martin and during the episode, Stevie says something genuinely wonderful about creativity. She likens her creative pursuits to when you’re a kid and you’re bored, so you’ll go and make a magazine out of pieces of scrap paper or paint a plate or make a friendship bracelet.

I have this amazing talent for taking something that is really, really fun and making it into hard work. Even now, as I type a blog post about not berating myself, I’m kind of berating myself for only having four entries in my travel journal. If I was a proper travel journaller, I’d have hundreds upon hundreds of entries bursting out of that notebook.

So when I heard Stevie say that about creativity, I genuinely teared up a little. Because it threw all of my little projects into a whole new light. Starting a travel journal doesn’t need to make you a travel journaller. Filming a Youtube video doesn’t need to make you a youtuber. Sometimes, we create just because it’s fun. We create just because we love to make things.

So many people now are lucky enough to make a career from their creativity and that is amazing. But I feel like, for me, that can sometimes push my hobbies into being a chore. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in blog numbers, sponsorship opportunities and the grand, overarching creative genius plan. And that’s absolutely not a bad thing. But isn’t it nice to throw off all of that sometimes and just play? I have a huge family with lots of little kids and one of my favourite things about hanging out with them is that I get to create things without any expectation that they’ll be good or important. We paint pictures. We make up and put on shows. We model things out of plasticine. I’m not good at any of those things but when you’re playing, it doesn’t matter. In fact, there’s something kind of nice about doing something you totally suck at and realising that you’re still having fun.

I think that most creative people have developed the creative itch. It’s what makes me start writing another book in the middle of writing my first. Or what makes me decide to film a YouTube video, even though I have no aspiration to become a YouTuber. Blogging is a great way for me to practice and hone my writing, which I hope to turn into a career some day. But as with all of my creative pursuits, my blog is more and less than that. It’s a space that’s entirely mine, and I don’t owe it to anyone to make it professional or marketable. Because it might be useful play, but it’s still play. Everything that I make, from my blog, to my novels, to my plasticine dinosaurs, to my unfinished, neglected scrapbooks is part of my story: the story that I’m writing for myself, a great big love letter from me to me. Often, creativity is nothing more and nothing less than a way to tell our story. So let’s tell it. Let’s play. Let’s make things.

Beach Body Already

This week, my Twitter exploded for the second time when new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced that he would be clamping down on body shaming adverts on the Tube. A lot of you lovely folks first found my blog through my fight with Protein World (if you’re a newbie, welcome to the party! You can read all about it here, here and here!) and I’m thrilled that people are still talking about it.

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I want to talk about privilege for just a second before the celebrations start – and make no mistake, this is a celebration blogpost. Body positive victories like this one are always, always built on the tireless work of brilliant, gorgeous, fat women who get a hundred times the abuse and none of the media attention that I did. I am so, so proud of the stand that I took against PW and continue to be blown away by the support I received but it’s worth asking – would the stunt have been so well received if I was fat? Even between Tara and me, two relatively thin girls, she bore the brunt of the abuse, I got the majority of the press. So please, continue to send your congratulations and I shall continue to bask in them because I’m a big millennial narcissist, but I’ll stick a list of excellent folks at the bottom of my post who fight for body positivity every day and often get nothing but abuse for it. Go show them some love.

At the height of the Beach Body debacle, one of the things I heard over and over (and over and over and over) was that we were wasting our time fighting against something as trivial as an advert. And there’s a grain of truth there. Women, especially fat women, face discrimination in much more overt, dangerous ways than having the beach body brigade shoved down their throats every summer. But I dare you to go speak to someone suffering from an eating disorder and dismiss body image issues as trivial. Anorexia is the deadliest mental illness faced by humans. It carries a higher risk of death than schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. This isn’t about an advert that hurts a few people’s delicate feelings. It’s about taking a little bite out of a culture that is actively killing people. So this might be a small victory, but it is absolutely 100% a victory.

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Photograph by Michael Mendones.

I’m not claiming that our protest single-handedly led to all of the changes that are happening, but I can’t remember the last time I saw an article about body shaming that wasn’t illustrated with a photograph of the Protein World advert. The advert, the protests, all of the trolling and argument, they made body image an issue that was suddenly worth talking about, worth writing about for the mainstream media. And that happened because we refused to shut up. We shouted louder and louder, over and over again, “This is not okay and we’re not going to take it anymore”.

The whole thing: the photograph, the TV interviews, the worldwide media, the Hyde Park party, the speeches Tara and I have given since, all of it was the product of a funny idea and about 12 seconds of mad courage. Everything hinged on the few moments it took to take a deep breath, steel each other and pull off our dresses in the middle of Charing Cross. Hundreds of thousands of women saw the advert and we just happened to be two of the many who dug our heels in and said no.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t think that you’re too small to make a difference. I took one photograph, had two mad weeks and held a protest party that was only about 100 people strong and the ripples of that are still being felt over a year later. We have the power to change things, if only we are brave enough to let ourselves care, if only we are brave enough to try. To steal a line from my blog’s namesake, even if you’re little, you can do a lot. I believe in you. And even at a time when it feels like the world is falling in on itself, I believe that people can be good. People can be great. And if we let ourselves, people can be powerful enough to change the world. Courage, dear heart. Courage.

 

Brilliant Body Positive People

Tara Catstello: my excellent partner in crime through the beach body furore, runs an amazing feminist blog that talks body issues, feminism and what it means to be a woman.

Bethany Rutter: plus size blogger and asskicker extraordinaire, made a huge batch of body confidence cards to hand out on the tube in response to a fatshaming asshat.

Hayley, Curves & Curls: pin up sasspot babe, runs a gorgeous plus size fashion blog.

Daisy Says: fabulous, opinionated, fierce as hell. Spends her days doling out positive vibes and dispatching trolls with gay abandon.

Lottie L’Amour: award winning blogger and ambassador for the Body Confidence Revolution, a project celebrating bodies in all of their glorious diversity.

Callie Thorpe: gorgeous blogger, Marie Claire columnist and longtime body confidence warrior.

MurderOfGoths: unreasonably talented plus size illustrator, creates the most beautiful, beautiful artwork of other plus size babes.

Danielle Vanier: fantastic plus size fashion blogger who campaigns for body acceptance and delights in breaking ridiculous “fashion rules”.

George Horne: plus size blogger and model who fights relentlessly for better representation of plus size women.

Because of the troll risk, I don’t want to add anyone to this list without their permission, but if you are or know an amazing body positive/fat positive activist, please shout! I’ll keep adding forever.

 

Being Hermione

You know, the greatest thing about having your own blog is that you can totally ignore everyone’s advice about finding a niche and just write whatever you want. This blog is a lot of things to me. Sometimes it’s a megaphone, sometimes it’s a therapy group, sometimes it’s a mirror. Sometimes, it’s just somewhere to work through my ideas, to practice my writing, to say something that I think needs to be said.

So today, I’m going to talk about Harry Potter. And you can all deal with it. I love the Harry Potter books in a way that is very specific to my generation, I think. We grew up along with Harry, Ron and Hermione. People in my town wore tape around their glasses for a while. I sobbed when a friend cracked the spine of my first edition Goblet of Fire. We queued at midnight book releases. A year ago, I applied for the dream job at Pottermore (whoever got it – you have my eternal envy). My dad read the Philosopher’s Stone to me. I slept with my bedroom light on all through Chamber of Secrets. In Prisoner of Azkaban, I had an imaginary hippogriff. I stayed up all night to read Goblet of Fire. I got sunstroke reading Order of the Phoenix. I kept the faith through the Half Blood Prince. I cried and cried and cried at the Deathly Hallows.

Reading, but also prepared to bolt in case of hungry basilisks or evil potions masters.

Reading, but also prepared to bolt in case of hungry basilisks or evil potions masters.

So, I might not be JK Rowling, but I consider myself quite the Harry Potter buff. And amidst all the debate about it, if you were to ask me who the real Hermione Granger is, I could tell you without a moment’s pause.

It’s me.

See? Hermione.

See? Hermione.

The bushy haired bookworm with too much to say. Who cried when people didn’t understand her, but never stopped being fiercely herself. Every time I picked up a Harry Potter book, I felt Hermione taking my hand. It’s okay, she’d whisper, we’re the good guys.

When the films came out, I was, of course, devastated that JK Rowling didn’t show up at my door and cry “Fiona! Where have you been! We’ve been searching for Hermione and I just knew we hadn’t found her because you weren’t there!”

That said, once I got over that devastating blow, my heart soared watching Emma Watson as Hermione. Sure, she was prettier than me and her hair was more manageable than mine, but I still saw myself in her every step of the way. I cheered when she punched Malfoy. I bawled when she descended the steps of the Yule Ball. I cheered when she hit Harry with a book that one time. I bawled when her and Ron shared their first kiss. Even now, show me a gif of Emma Watson crying and I’ll tear up. Because she is Hermione and Hermione is me.

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Now that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has opened at the Palace Theatre in London, conversations about the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a black woman, as Hermione have flared up again. While I suspect that a whole lot of people are using this as a very thin veil for their racism, the justification seems to be that Noma Dumezweni just isn’t what Hermione looks like. And you know what? She’s not what my Hermione looked like. But for millions of other young girls, millions of young black Harry Potter fans, she’s exactly what Hermione looked like. Because she is Hermione and Hermione is them.

If you can’t see the beauty in a whole new subsection of women having their vision of Hermione recognised and validated, you don’t understand Hermione at all. Hermione is for every little girl who has ever felt odd or out of place or wrong. Hermione is a woman. She’s outspoken, seen as mouthy, even – although I’d be willing to stake my life on Harry having more lines. She’s muggle born, a “mudblood”. She weathers criticism and discrimination on all these fronts, and adding racism to the mix puts in new layers to the discrimination she faces. And this is something that black girls will recognise and experience. Hermione exists to say it’s okay to be smart, it’s okay to be mouthy, it’s okay to be black. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be you.

Hermione is Emma Watson. Hermione is Noma Dumezweni. She’s probably JK Rowling too. She’s me. She might even be you. And if you don’t understand that, if you don’t wholeheartedly celebrate that, then you don’t understand the first thing about her.

Stepping Stones

It’s a funny old thing, isn’t it, this life business?

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In a little under a month, it’ll be three years since I graduated from university. That got me thinking. Dangerous, I know.

The older I get, the faster time seems to go. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that one. But sometimes the nostalgic question “Where the f*ck did the last three years go?” twists and distorts until it becomes something much more sinister:

“What the f*ck have I done with the last three years?”

This is the question that creeps into my mind right before I fall asleep. It’s the question that guilts me into making plans when staying home would make me happier. It’s the question that sparks the constant desire for “self improvement”, even when I’m exhausted and would be better off pouring a glass of wine, lighting a candle and reading a book.

I don’t think I’m on my own here. Twitter has opened up our inner monologue to each other like never before and the prevailing theme for almost everyone over the age of 20 seems to be “What the hell am I doing and is it what I’m supposed to be doing?”. Having spent the entirety of our teenage lives fighting to get out from under the control of our teachers, our professors, our parents, a lot of us find that we miss the comfort of having someone tell us “This is what success will look like and these are the steps you need to achieve it”.

All through my life, I’ve had stepping stones to hop between. Markers of success to tell me when I’m doing a good job. Things progress logically, one milestone fluidly melting into the next. Pass your exams, move out, graduate university, get a job…as a child, and even as a young adult, the path is laid out. But once you reach the end of that path, once you step off and wander into the unknown, the world is suddenly your oyster. You can do literally whatever you want. And I know I can’t be the only one who sometimes gets vertigo from that realisation.

It’s not so much that I want somebody to tell me what to do. It’s more that I want to be reassured that I’m doing something. Anything. I asked Niall the question quite recently, “What the f*ck have I done with the last three years?” and he pushed me off of my chair. Affectionately, of course. Because I’ve done lots of stuff in that time. I started this blog and gained an amazing band of people who actually enjoy reading my words. I moved to London and survived there. I have raised almost £3000 for Cancer Research. I wrote a book. I have baked countless apple pies. I have made lots of people laugh. I have made a few people cry too. I have taken joy in a thousand tiny moments that no one will ever remember. When I really think about it, I know that I have done a million things in those three years since I graduated. So why does it sometimes feel like I have failed?

I think it’s because as an adult, milestones are few and far between. Maybe you get married, buy a house, have a baby. But I’m not planning on doing any of those things any time soon. So what do we cling to in the vast space between the last milestone and the next? How do we keep from drowning without that reassuring pat on the head, without the checklist to be ticked off?

We’ve all seen the articles on social media:

50 things to do before you turn 30
What your twenties are really for
7 signs that you’re really a grown up
The 5 secrets to getting your shit together

We devour them, pick them apart and swallow them. Turn our lives into bucket lists, a neat little path of experiences with “adulthood” glimmering at the end like a pot of gold. We create fake milestones, which we collect and wear like trophies: the Mulberry bag, the glamorous holiday, the ten thousand Twitter followers. We hoard them like misers, using them to tell ourselves stories about us. The truth is, once you step off the path that’s been laid out for you, there is no next step. There’s no grand scoreboard in this game of life, no quantifiable measure of success or adulthood.

It’s hard, to come to terms with that. To realise that you’re the only one who can assure yourself that you’re doing a good job. That you’re living just as you should. That you are meaningful. It takes real courage to strive for happiness, to stop trying to measure yourself up. What the f*ck have I done for the last three years? I’m not sure. But I’ve lived. I’ve tried.

What Yoga is Teaching Me About Me

So, I’ve been taking a yoga class.

*pauses for gales of laughter to subside*

I know, I know, me and exercise haven’t always been the most natural of bedfellows. I was once pulled in front of the class and used as a bad example in PE. I walk the 5k Race for Life every year. My idea of a hearty workout normally involves walking to the fridge to get another piece of cake.

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I signed up sort of on a whim. My dad had wired me some pocket money and I wanted to spend it trying something new, something that I’d never normally spend it on. I’d read a post by one of my favourite bloggers not too long before about how she had discovered yoga and had fallen in love with it. So I googled “Dalston Yoga” and booked myself a block of six beginners classes at the first school that popped up. I am beyond, beyond thrilled that by sheer chance, I picked one of the best exercise classes I’ve ever been to. Dalston Yoga classes take place in a tiny loft studio, sunlight streaming through an open skylight, the air warm and spiced with soft incense. A black and white cat pads around the space, curiously observing. The teacher, Paulene, guides classes gently in a thick, soothing Aussie accent (this is probably where I find out that it’s not an Aussie accent and get in trouble), liberally peppered with swearwords.

I first walked through her door about six months ago and I honestly don’t know how I lived without it. It’s become a hard, occasionally weird, but always brilliant part of my life. It’s constantly teaching me things about myself, and I don’t just mean that in the typical “yoga has brought me to a moment of clarity and reflection” (although there are shades of that sometimes). It’s teaching me things about myself in the same way that trying anything that you’re not immediately good at does. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned:

It’s a damn good thing that I’m smart.

I’ve always been a rather appalling goody two shoes. A teacher’s pet. A kiss ass of the highest order. So imagine my surprise on learning that when I’m not immediately good at something, I have an almost irrepressible instinct to play class clown. As soon as I start to struggle, when my legs start to shake or I can’t bend as far as I want to, I feel compelled to comically fall over or make a smart comment about my lack of fitness. Because at least then, people would be laughing with me, right? There it is, one of my biggest insecurities and defense mechanisms, laid utterly naked by nothing more and nothing less than a forward bend. There is nothing scarier than trying really hard and still not being very good. It has taken real strength to battle past that. To accept that actually, nobody is going to laugh at my poses quite simply because no one is looking at me. Which brings us neatly into surprise number two…

“Poses” is a grossly misleading word.

When I hear the word “yoga”, the image that comes to mind is pretty specific and also, as it turns out, utter bollocks. I imagine a thin, white, pretty woman pretzelled up on a sandy beach. The sun is probably rising. She’s probably drinking from a coconut. She has great hair. Her name is probably Tiffany. Regardless, her poses are just that: still, serene, beautiful. When I go to yoga, I am anything but. This took a long while for me to come to terms with. I had a very definite idea of what I should look like when I was doing yoga and for the first couple of classes, I verged on upset, face flushing bright red as my legs juddered and twitched beneath me, or my wrist cracked, or my breath became ragged. Then, as I got out of my own damn head for a second – helped infinitely by the incredible teacher, Paulene – I realised that yoga isn’t supposed to be pretty. It’s a process of discovery and discovery is almost never neat or Instagrammable.

Now, I set my mat up at the front of every single class. I have never ever done that in an exercise class before. My yoga isn’t any prettier but I don’t care, because I’m discovering my body, piece by tiny piece. Sometimes, it does super weird things. When they get tired, my limbs start to shudder. My movements aren’t smooth and practised. A lot of the time, I jerk stiffly from one position to the next. Sometimes, for no reason at all, one of my muscles will decide that it’s going no further and cling on for dear life. I grunt and groan and sweat my way through the classes. And it feels incredible.

It’s not about that.

We all tend to think of ourselves as big heads on sticks. Our mind does all of the living for us and our body runs after, trying to keep up. As somebody who has devastatingly physical symptoms whenever my mind gets out of balance, I can definitely attest to that. More than being about getting bendy or skinny or even fit, for me, yoga is about actually taking some time to hang out in my body. As touched on in point one, I’m a bit of an Overachiever. It has been really, really difficult for me not to get caught up going “Well, by this time next month, I want to be able to bend this far, or hold this pose for this long”. That works for some people but is really destructive and distracting for me. I spent my first couple of classes physically pulling myself into uncomfortable stretches and poses before being utterly called out on it by Paulene.

Once I got past that, it became less about nailing each pose and more about going Oh, so that’s how my body moves in that direction.
So that’s how far I can go this way.
That’s what it feels like when I twist like that.

Your body has no moral value. There is no right or wrong way to have a body (despite what some people adamantly insist). The class isn’t a place for me to criticise or improve my body. It’s a place for me to observe. Because how are you supposed to love something that you don’t even know? So I watch my body. I learn what it can do. I learn Oh, that feels good.
That feels weird.
That’s interesting.
I think I can go further.
My body is great.
I am great.

Just like she knew when my mind was pushing me too hard, Paulene knows when my mind is blocking me. She knows when it’s my mind saying no, when my body could actually go a little further. Bit by bit, I’m building up. I’m starting to notice which poses make me feel happy, which poses make me feel strong, which poses make me feel grounded. Because I started at the ugly, ungainly beginning.

Once, talking about another yoga class she had attended, Paulene snorted, “They’ve got all these poor people trying to stand on their heads and they haven’t even learned to stand on their f*cking feet”.

That’s what yoga is about for me. It’s not about the money shot, the headstand, the scorpion pose, the perfect, beachy Pinterest pin. It’s about spending time with me. It’s about not pretending to love my body when actually, I’m just ignoring it. It’s about being present. It’s about learning to stand on my f*cking feet.