So my blog post from Friday - 'Adios to arm envy' - opened the floodgates in my mind. Just as well I'd resolved to have a mobile phone- and computer-free weekend or I would have blogged for Britain over the past few days. Of course, I can't remember all the thoughts that came up but I do remember having some flashbacks to some painful moments in my teenage years: picking up the clumps of hair from my pink bedroom carpet, feeling dizzy after netball because I'd barely eaten all day and, after I'd put on a bit of weight, buying clothes a size too small in the hope I'd slim into them. I also clearly remember a comment from a teacher after I'd come home from a three-week student exchange visit to Spain, aged 16. "What happened to you?" the teacher asked as she pointed to my newly acquired curves. I'd been so unhappy and lonely on that trip that I'd done some serious overeating and my weight gain was noticeable. Kids can be cruel, but teachers can be too.
Through my late teens, university and beyond, far too much time was devoted to trying to lose that excess weight and too much headspace was taken up with thoughts about my 'imperfect' looks. By then, though, I was trapped in a cycle of starving, over-exercising, binge-eating, binge-drinking and body obsession. I should add here that those years weren't all bad - I had some great times, made wonderful friends and had amazing experiences. But it's sad that so much of my focus was on my appearance and it's sad that my self-esteem was so low. It's equally sad and worrying to think there are other young girls, teenagers and women of all ages who are going through the same thing and are maybe trapped in a similar destructive cycle. The latest Girl Guiding UK survey, which I've mentioned previously in this blog, reveals how important appearance is to young girls today and how dissatisfied many are with the way they look. This 45-second video encapsulates the survey's findings:
Moving on to the topic of hair, I didn't mention in my last post that I had a recurrence of the hair-thinning nightmare around 36 or 37. I include this here not because I relish exposing myself further but in case someone who reads this is struggling with something similar and is looking for answers. I remember what a difficult time it was for me. My friends kept reassuring me there was nothing wrong with my hair but I could feel it thinning and, as if that wasn't bad enough, I had breakouts of acne. I'd finally found some peace and balance around my weight and eating and had let go of some other unhealthy behaviours so why was I looking worse than ever? What was going on? And why me? I remember the string of doctors, herbalists, naturopaths and acupuncturists I saw. Finally, after deciding I didn't want to take the variety of drugs being offered by the medical profession, I found a kinesiology practitioner who dosed me up on Omega 3 and a few other natural supplements to balance my hormones and after a long while, my skin largely cleared up and I no longer felt I was losing my hair. Through my various appointments and research, I discovered the thinning hair and acne were linked to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that comes with all kinds of horrible symptoms like hair loss from places where you really don't want to lose it to hair gain in places you'd much prefer it didn't grow. Oh the joys of being a woman!
But back, after much meandering, to the title of this post: Every body bathing in Bath. So I spent Thursday night and Friday in the beautiful city of Bath in Somerset, home to the UK's only natural hot springs, if Wikipedia can be trusted. I'd never been to Bath before and was absolutely astonished at how beautiful it was. I was also astonished at the fact I'd never visited despite having lived in Oxford for three years when I was younger and in London for nine. But then I'm one of those people who could tell you the geography of Mexico, Brazil or Australia but who doesn't have a clue where Somerset is in relation to Oxfordshire (I do now!). Bath has actually been on my list of places to visit but it's taken me a very long time so I was really pleased I'd decided to stay the night there, despite the hotel being a little expensive. I was also delighted I'd booked a massage at the Thermae Bath Spa on Thursday evening - despite that being a little expensive too. I don't have a steady income right now and am feeling rather financially insecure but sometimes, as the L'Oreal advert says, "You're worth it".
So I sat in the spa's open-air rooftop pool until 9:30 pm on Thursday and went back there on Friday - a day of glorious sunshine - and sat in it for about an hour and a half. Yes, I came out a little shrivelled and sun-dazed but it was a lovely experience. This was pure relaxation and recreation. There was a great atmosphere - mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, groups of girls or older women, couples, and the odd sole bather (like myself) - all in a bubbling warm pool together. And it was also a great spot to ponder the topic of this blog - body image and self-acceptance.
Most of the bathers were women, women of all shapes, sizes and ages. Some were obviously very comfortable in their own skin and happy to walk around in bikinis. Others kept their bath robes on as long as possible before slipping into the water. I remarked how we are all so different in body shape and how we all put weight on in different places. If I gain weight, my upper arms and face are generally the first places to fill out. For other women, it's the waist or thighs. So why is it so hard for some of us (not all us, of course) to accept our bodies the way they are and to cherish them as unique and individual. Why have I spent so many years wanting any other body except for my own? I'm 100 percent Anglo-Saxon, after all, so as hard as I try, I'll never have the arms of Michelle Obama.
But as I've mentioned before in this blog, I know for myself that my obsessions about my body are manifestations of a deeper unease that goes right to my core. And that's where the healing has to happen and I'm pleased to say, it already is.
Last weekend also prompted some more thoughts about 'the baby gap', which I wrote about on Day 22. I was away in the beautiful Cotswolds with a group of men and women all around my age. Some of the women had had children, some when they were young but others later in life. Others of us were still waiting for it to happen or wondering if it would. I'd say all the females fell into the category of 'career women'. Our discussions prompted some thoughts: should women my age and older been made more aware of our drop in fertility after 35? Should this have been laid out to us more clearly at school or at other key moments in our lives? Or had we in fact been aware of this but had chosen to ignore it and get on with our careers? Even if we'd had all the facts, would it have made any difference? Personally, I'm aware I had a vague notion that fertility declined with age but I don't think I ever really stopped to think about it. But if I had, would I have done anything about it? I did have a moment last night of deep regret about some of the choices I'd made over the years but then I realised this morning that regret about the past won't change my present or future. It will, of course, give me something else to fret and obsess about and I certainly don't need anything new. As I pondered all this during an early morning sit in the park, I was reminded of a Bible verse I find really comforting: 'Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!'
I was also heartened this morning by the news a former colleague had just given birth to a baby girl at 45. Once again, I thought, the whole baby thing comes down to acceptance and trust - trust that it will happen or trust that I'll be OK if it doesn't. And once again, I can make the most of my freedom and gladly accept an invite from a woman my age who is also child-free (sounds better than childless) to go camping and mountain biking next weekend without having to think about who's going to look after the little ones.
Before I sign off, I was writing on Day 24 about Australia's Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image - a great initiative but one that unfortunately has failed to have a huge impact on the fashion, advertising or media industries. Now it seems Britain has taken some small steps to regulate part of the advertising industry, publishing some new guidelines for advertisers of cosmetics. I haven't had a chance to read through all the guidelines but according to this article on Fashionista.com they include the use of misleading eyelash inserts, the excessive use of hair extensions in hair ads, the use of fake nails in nail adverts and re-touching pictures to remove fine lines and wrinkles, fly-away hair and skin blemishes, if the products advertised are claiming to help those issues. Once again, these are guidelines and as we've seen with Australia's voluntary code, industries are reluctant to change. But maybe, eventually, there'll be fewer advertisements on our TVs like Cheryl Cole's ad for L'Oreal and maybe there'll be fewer young girls (and 40-year-old women for that matter) bemoaning the fact their hair doesn't look like Cheryl Cole's on the TV ad - because the truth is even Cheryl Cole's hair doesn't look like Cheryl Cole's hair on the TV ad.
And finally, how's this for comic timing: as I was finishing up this section on Cheryl Cole's fake TV hair, I noticed I'm now being followed on Twitter by a company that sells organic hair extensions. Should I give it a go? Never say never but for now, I think I'll stick with my own hair, just as it is.