I've become slightly addicted to the new series by Cherry Healey on BBC Three. These fun documentaries unfold the typical women's issues, so far looking at breast feeding, money, and most recently, body issues. In the latest episode, Cherry discussed some of her own issues about her body and weight, and visited a number of women to talk about their own body images.
According to Cherry, the average woman spends 31 years of her life on a diet. If we presume that the first and last 10 years of any woman's life are not spent dieting (but are rather spent being young and being old respectively), that's a total of half of a woman's life from age 10 to age 70 spent on a diet. Hideous.
The documentary really hit home to me. Like practically every other woman on the planet (or at least in the UK and USA - German women never seem to have body issues!), I've spent a good proportion of my 24 years worrying about my body. I remember in explicit detail practically every instance of being called 'fat' at school - going back as far as when I was four years old and had to stand up in front of the class to say something. I was always a 'well built' child, despite the fact that I was brought up on the healthiest and most wonderful of diets - I can honestly claim that not once did I consume a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar in my packed lunch, and enjoyed instead melon and raw vegetables, and the odd fig roll as an occasional treat.
So I continued into high school being relatively overweight, but nothing too serious. I wasn't fit (at all!!!) and I had a big appetite, and once I was given free-reign of my food my 'well built' figure became 'properly overweight' quite quickly. I always dreamed that one day I'd lose weight, but I never actually tried to; I have no idea why. Then, I got a boyfriend, and McDonalds lunches teamed with Starbucks afternoons teamed with absolute disregard for my health led to full-on overweightness. Possibly even obesity. We were overweight together so it seemed less obvious, and I didn't notice until my favourite trousers became a bit tight.
To cut a long story short, I decided, much later than I should have (I actually couldn't wear trousers at the time as finding a pair to fit was too difficult), to do something about it. I started running (albeit very slowly!), I started going out on my bike, and most importantly, I started to cook. I cooked and cooked and cooked. I discovered new vegetables, spices, curries and chillies and ratatouille. I came home from school every day and put a tray of vegetables in the oven to roast. I stopped eating meat and bread. I loved fresh salmon, chickpeas, and mounds and mounds of colourful veg. I had a good breakfast every morning: muesli and natural yogurt and fruit. I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with food. I still ate a lot, but the weight just dropped off - fell as if I was shedding my skin. That summer, I wore a bikini on the beach in Vancouver. I was 18 and I absolutely loved my body: how many women can say that?
But there's always a but.
Mine was university. What happened, I do not know, but everything came undone. Maybe I was too confident in my new habits, maybe I got cocky and thought I'd never be able to be fat again. I can assure you that takeaways and alcohol make you fat incredibly quickly. It's very easy to be thin, but it's just as easy to not be thin, that's for sure.
(I actually can't find a single photo of me from back then that isn't only my face to put on here - shocking!)
Argh I was so unhealthy, and the chronic stomach problems I've always had got worse and worse and worse. I was in so much pain and discomfort that I had to miss lectures, and I ate mainly Weetabix and cous cous for a good few months running. I became pretty scared of food and how it could make me feel - but that didn't stop me stopping by the pizza takeaway on the way home from a night out.
It wasn't long into this nightmare that something clicked into place. I started cooking properly again, and (gasp! confession!!) in March 2007 I joined a gym! I hate gyms, I really hate them. But I went, three or four times a week, mainly to run on the treadmill. Weight once again disappeared (as did the takeaway boxes in the recycling), my stomach problems improved and I started to feel good. By June I had the confidence to run outside, and by July I was back in that bikini in Croatia.
Ah you see! I was not super skinny and I certainly didn't have a six pack, but I felt GREAT. Absolutely wonderfully great about my whole body. Hurrah! I was fitter than ever and back with my love for food; happy just to carry on the way I was going.
And then another but!
France. The but of buts. The living alone with no radio or Internet in a tiny basement studio. Freezing cold all winter. Nothing much to do. Certainly not the lifestyle a 20-year old wants for herself. Cue calorie counting, portion control, an obsession with sit ups and squats and bean-can dumbbells.
Six months later I was the thinnest and unhappiest I'd ever been. We don't need to go too far into that right now. But I do have loads of photos.
So, what have I just laid this all out for? Because this is something that is more to me than much else. Most women have issues with their bodies, and it's up to all of us to fix it. Because the world around us is not going to change, so we have to change it ourselves. Because I don't want to spend another 22 years dieting or worrying about myself.
I'm a whole stone heavier than I was this time last year (despite the fact that I eat less and exercise more...hmm), but I'm no less happy than I was then. I'm no less happy than I was in that top picture either. I'm a trillion times happier than I was in the above photo. Plus I'm not irritable, I have periods, I don't wake up in the night with agonizing pains in my legs and hips, I don't bruise at the touch of a feather, and I've gained my interest back in a lot of (very important!!) things. Hurrah!
I can stand, hand on heart and say that - right now at least - I love my body. I don't feel fat (though I do have fat days of course!), I don't want to make anything bigger or smaller, and I don't ever do sit ups (how long do I have to live, and how much of that do I want to spend doing sit ups?). I eat loads, I run and cycle for the pleasure of it, I don't intend to ever join a gym again.
Watching Cherry Healey's documentary yesterday made me realize how fortunate I am to feel this way. How much I need to celebrate not getting on the scales every day (or week, or month), not counting calories, not doing 100 sit ups in the mornings. I'm ok with not having a toned stomach, I'm ok with not fitting into my teeeny tiny jeans, I'm ok with my stocky legs that recently got me 100-miles on a bike.
We focus too much on losing weight, and not enough on being healthy. Forget sweetner, forget margarine, forget treadmills and sit ups and no carbs. None of these things benefit our bodies. Fresh air, wholegrains, laughter, gentle yoga, 12 portions of veg a day, water, lentils and lots and lots of simple happiness: that's how I want my time to be spent, thank you very much.
One of the best things I've gained from blogging is food inspiration. I read a good number of food blogs on a daily basis, and my weekly menus often include ideas I've found here in the Blogosphere. In fact, some things have even become staples in our kitchen, either in their original form, or adapted to match my own tastes.
There is so much inspiration to be found, and I delight in it.
It is only right and good that I share those recipes that really make us go 'oh my....YUM!!' as we sit down at the table; if I love them then I'm sure plenty of other people would too, and as we don't all read the same set of food blogs, it makes sense to spread the word! So, here is part one of my Best Blog Recipes series (that sounds a little too official, I must say)!
I'll blog about recipes as I cook them - not only because this gives me a good excuse to taste my favourite recipes again, but also because there is such a huge back-log of amazing ideas to cover that I'd be here all year trying to work out how to write them all down in as much detail as I can! Note that this isn't any form of recipe review; if it's here then Daniel and I loved it (one omnivore and one vegetarian, for a well-balanced spectrum of tastebuds!) - I'm not going to bemoan anything I've found that wasn't quite to my tastes, that's not my style!
I used to live in Germany, where breaded pretzels - or Laugenbraetze, as they were known in Bavaria - were available on every corner. I often used to pick one up on the way back from a lecture, or as a snack while shopping, and rather quickly I became almost addicted to the way my teeth broke the golden crust, revealing the soft, doughy and incredibly white bread beneath. Actual heaven.
A few months ago I tried making them for the first time, using this recipe by the Hairy Bikers. The pretzels were tasty, there's no doubt about that, but they were too 'British'; a lot like very salty, pretzel-shaped crusty rolls: not the sensual revisit to Bavaria that I was really after!! Then, today, I fancied baking something. In fact, I needed to bake something, and having consumed more sugar than my teeth and blood can probably cope with over the past few days, it had to be something savoury. I'd come across the recipe in question a few weeks ago, and within minutes I was back to that webpage to check whether my cupboards were appropriately stocked!
Two hours later...
They look rather yellow but I put that down to having used extra virgin olive oil rather than margarine. We topped half with caraway seeds and half with salt, but personally I think the salted ones look the best! So far I've had a caraway pretzel, which was increidble. I bit into it and Germany came flooding back; the crust was perfect, and the dough was white and a little cloying to the mouth - just as it should be. I have to say that while I was making this I was completely doubtful that it would work: the bread mixture was much thicker than I'm used to, and it was very hard to knead by hand. Still, with a little help from a cool oven it rose to double the size, and thus my optimism also grew! We then boiled them in soda water (this isn't called for in the Hairy Biker's recipe), which was very exciting! This was a fun recipe to cook together, especially once the dough had risen, and I bet it would be extra fun to make these with kids (or fully-grown boyfriends who are un-used to baking...!).
Next time you wake up on a rainy Sunday, I fully recommend that you try these! A great healthy snack, which we've wrapped up ready for lunches tomorrow, and lots of fun to create! You could also top them with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, cheese, pepper...the options are endless!
It marks the success of my MA; standing next to my parents one chilly January morning and not needing any form of word or gesture to know exactly how proud of me they are.
It marks the year I went wine tasting for the first time.
It marks the year I ran three half marathons, fell in love with fell running, cycled hundreds of miles ready for an amazing 100-mile bike race (and through all this managed to gain a stone). Too tired to feel fit, but satisfied either way.
It marks the year I lost one of the brightest lights in my world; my Uncle Rob. The year I stood before hundreds at his funeral to try and put into words how we were all feeling.
It marks the year I was, so very briefly, unemployed: a short but bitter period of the worst that 'real life' has to offer.
It marks the year when, early one fresh morning in early summer, I knew where I wanted to be, and I started to chase it.
Twenty three, you've been tough, and I've become tougher. Here's to a twenty fifth year of seeing things through and sleeping a bit longer!
I am all things right now. Bloated with pasta, tired, nervous, excited, curious, energetic, desperate to squash some yoga into the last minutes of the day (we have to be up at 5, so it's pretty much bed time right now).
We will be cycling in memory of my Uncle Robert. A wonderful, inspiring and slightly crazy man, who would surely would have loved to take part in this race himself. I miss him now more than ever; the impossibility of his death is even greater when I'm out on my bike, flying through the countryside as if the world were my own. So far we've raised over £400 towards the hospice that cared for him in my hometown. People have been so generous.
Yesterday I found out that my Uncle's colleagues are also fundraising in his memory this weekend, by climbing the Yorkshire Three Peaks, again for the hospice. The idea that other people who knew and loved him will be out in Yorkshire to honour his memory tomorrow is so big it almost brings tears. The thought of us all out there missing him will surely get me over some walls tomorrow.
So here we are. About to go to bed. And when we wake, it will be the big day! Please hope for good weather for us tomorrow, with no wind!