I bought a plumptious white peach on Sunday and perched it on the windowsill facing my desk so it could bask in my admiration. I tried to find pleasure in the anticipation of eating it but the important part – that a delay in eating must be voluntarily self-imposed to be truly enjoyable- has gone.
I was diagnosed with diabetes six weeks ago. My days of eating peaches without care are over.
These days I have to perform carb maths, tapping on my phone with fingers sore from multiple pinpricks. (How did people in the olden days cope without apps to help?) I conduct an internal dialogue with my pancreas and liver (please let me eat this!) in front of market stalls or rammed up against a seething, hungry mass of humanity at food festivals. I hang around online food sites at 2 am in the morning when I am fitful from hypoglycemia or its hyper-odious sibling and torture myself with the Things I Cannot Have. It’s a form of self harm, I know, but it serves as a necessary part of accepting what has happened to me as I push myself up against my diagnosis. I can no longer leave any room for mistakes in a body that has become as confounding and wily as an old coyote.
The immutable reality of peach carbs (14-17g) meant it would have to replace the slice of wholemeal toast I prefer for breakfast and wouldn’t do at all as a mid-morning snack; I ensured I drank lots of water with it; I ate it slowly; I did ALL THE GODDAMN SENSIBLE DIABETIC THINGS.
By 11 a.m my blood sugars had shot up to ridiculous levels and what felt like a million tiny grains of sugar were needling me underneath my skin, prickling and itching and jabbing. There’s no drug on earth that can fully mitigate these sensations either; they take time to disappear, even after insulin or other diabetic medications return blood glucose levels to normal*. Not even antihistamine works (believe me, I have tried). It’s not itching in any sense that you might understand, rather it feels as if I am being pricked by a thousand needles from the inside. It makes me jump and twitch, my head pounds, my eyes and mouth become as dry as Dorothy Parker. By the time my husband came home I was about ready to burn the world down with fire.
I really, really hate the fact that fruit- and other carbs- have become loaded with problems. I am so resentful that I can’t just eat a piece of goddamn fruit. I have one overriding thought:
WHY WOULD ANYONE CHOOSE TO DENY THEMSELVES ENTIRE FOOD GROUPS IF THEY DON’T HAVE TO?
I am looking at YOU Gwyneth, Ella, the two Hemsley Sisters. Tess Ward and Madeleine Shaw (whose ‘chia seed egg substitute’ is about as appealing as toad shit) among many others. The fact that so many of you are women does not escape me. I’m calling it a form of dietary Stockholm Syndrome but you don’t get a feminist pass out of your self-imposed exile from joyful eating. Neither do I buy the argument that all clean eaters are psychologically unwell themselves. Some may well be, but does this also apply to the publishers and media organisations who make a lot of money from hawking dietary woo? Nope it does not. You would take advantage of people like me if you could.
I don’t restrict carbs because I need to post photos of myself on balmy beaches hashtagged #blessed. I don’t restrict them because I erroneously mistake a full belly for bloat and I cannot cope with the idea of my body taking up more space in the world. I don’t restrict carbs because I have bought into a weird, sex ‘n death ‘n food vibe based upon quasi-spiritual concepts of denial and purity.
I CAN’T eat more than 40g of carbohydrate a day. Keeping to this is really difficult to do so I wonder why anybody would choose to live like this. It doesn’t hugely matter where the carbs comes from either which flies in the face of conventional dietary advice to diabetics, although carbs that take longer to be absorbed (brown rice, eg) are *better*. I refuse to accept that anyone with taste buds will always think ‘oh yum!’ when offered brown rice over a piece of sourdough spread with good butter or a bowlful of cacio e pepe with a snowy covering of pecorino, or a tray of roasted root veg. A handful of cherries or juicy peaches are as damaging to me, blood sugar-wise, as a chocolate bar is at the moment. When it comes to sugar, my body doesn’t care if it’s the *worthier* fructose from whole fruit or the baddie du jour, glucose. It gets mighty pissed off if it’s lactose, too. My diabetes doesn’t give a shit about clean eating and prefers torture by a thousand sugar-needles over my old habit of negative self-talk if I over-indulged. If you want to get all biblical then let’s call it a damn hair shirt.
When you are told you cannot eat the foods you have always adored, it feels like part of you has died, never mind the dire warnings of actual death or blindness, renal and heart disease or the grim possibility that bits of you will literally start dropping off if you don’t maintain ‘good control’. (It doesn’t escape me that some of the language of diabetes care resembles the self-think of eating disorders**). I’ve not forgotten that time when as a HCP, I took a patient for an X-Ray and a blackened, diabetic toe rolled out of his sock as we removed it. I intend to die with all my toes- and toe rings- still attached to my feet because to paraphrase Kate Moss: “nothing tastes as good as having all your toes feels.”
I never did eat much white bread, white rice or pasta. I’m actually not a huge fan of pasta tbh. But when you can no longer blithely eat these sturdy workhorse carbs, by god you realise the fundamental role they played in your culinary repertoire. It’s really hard having to cook food for others that you cannot eat. It feels like an eating disorder that compels me to cook and serve my family with delicious food whilst I toy with a lettuce leaf and tedious lumps of protein in the next room.
To not be able to sneak a roast potato from the tray when serving up lunch unless you count its damn carbs like Scrooge on Christmas Eve? Horrible. Snaffling the end of the baguette on the way home from the bakers? No longer a spontaneous joy. Having to ask Leon or Pret for the carb content of everything you think you might be able to eat and having people look at you like you’re some kind of Gwyneth Loon-Disciple? Humiliating. Ordering drinks in pubs? Challenging because caffeine shoves me into hypos really swiftly and there are not many drinks that are sugar-free and caffeine-free. For those of you suggesting water, YOU try drinking it all night. I haven’t even addressed the joys of eating out in decent restaurants where it feels like an insult to ask the chef to accommodate you by leaving this or that from the finished dish. Yes I know I can just leave it but sitting in front of morsels of deliciousness knowing you cannot eat them is really, really shit.
Basically, when it comes to restricting food groups, the transaction will always be voluntary for clean eaters. They know they have a get-out clause. They know they don’t have to do it. If their resolve breaks and they decide to eat a slab of cheap chocolate or hunk of white bread, it ain’t gonna hurt them because despite whatever woo nonsense they believe in, physiological homeostasis really isn’t that precarious. Pretending that it’s a matter of life and death for them, that the food they willingly exclude is harmful to them (when it is not) is sickening. For those of us contractually obliged to no longer eat in abundance the kinds of food we love because our bodies have let us down, the exclusion is of a more permanent kind.***
* My diabetes is my diabetes. Yours may have different symptoms.
** That’s a whole ‘nother blog post on how diabetes can really mess with body image and food issues. Feel free to commission me on this.
(Previously published in the print edition of the Bury Free Press.)
It’s early October and already it feels more like a fresh start than New Years Day ever did. The latter’s odd meld of forced bonhomie, melancholy and lassitude from over-indulging never feels fresh to me. New Year has instead, the air of the last day before we’re packed off to some dreary wellness rehab/ resort where they torture you with pints of daily tea made of moss and old twigs, foraged by a hippie with a manbun. January resolutions inevitably require us to reflect upon our previous misconduct and Vow To Do Better meaning our Fresh Start is already tainted with guilt and dreary low-rent Calvinism. I’m predestined to fail under those circumstances.
October is better. October is the season of mists, a mellow kind of fruitfulness and- most joyful of all- entertaining twitter hashtags. Already we have #GBBO (my hate-follow because the miked sound of Mary and Paul chewing is worse than what we’d hear if they went to the loo wearing them) and #Strictly which is going to be JOYOUS because we have Ed Balls and his later-life self actualisation. To date Ed has given us pantomime boy-style capes, Elmer Fudd checks and a potted lesson in how to let go of the painful stuff without, um, RESOLUTIONS.
(Want to understand my weird obsession with him? Check out this post on the website ‘Put Up With Rain’). It’s all Jess’s fault.
October is a slight bite in the early morning air and a Titian landscape; it’s woolly tights in hedgerow colours and lining the shelves of the cellar with mulled this and damson that. There’s boxes of new pencils and Cash’s name tapes to buy and blackberries to pick in the slanting light of the early evening. It’s the best time to get stuck into period dramas and boxsets, Netflix binges and publishers’ autumn lists filled with chunky cookbooks and the latest novel from your favourite author. The memory of brand new school exercise books and writing my names on them in my best handwriting is still acute. Yes, autumn is a time for making plans but it is also a time to batten down the hatches and consolidate what we already have and despite my enjoying modern conveniences and a local market teeming with bi-weekly deliveries of fresh food, at this time of year my atavistic settler genes run deep and I feel the urge to lay down supplies for the coming winter.
Last week I was reading about a new book (Hygge, a Celebration of Simple Pleasures) whose author urges us all to adopt the Danish way of living snuggly. There’s been a rash of books published on the subject (whiff of bandwagon, apart from those written by actual Scandinavians) and a lot of (albeit pleasurable) guff written about a concept which basically means ‘cosy’ but I guess there’s something in it because the Danes took the top spot in the United Nations World Happiness Report in 2016. In the interests of balance I should also point out that the Danes also take more anti-depressants than many other nations although this may well be linked to better mental health treatment and an absence of stigma. They also have a lot of bacon which is associated with great happiness in my house, too.
V.S Naipaul was being very harsh on the Danes when he said, after winning the Nobel for literature in 2002, that ‘”If you are interested in horrible places, I can recommend Denmark. No one starves. Everyone lives in small, pretty houses. But no one is rich, no one has a chance to a life in luxury, and everyone is depressed. Everyone lives in their small well-organized cells with their Danish furniture and their lovely lamps, without which they would go mad.’ I personally would go mad without a decent lamp in the winter, without which I could not see to read (and it won’t be anything by Naipaul, the old curmudgeon) and there’s nothing wrong with a well- organized cell which is pretty much the only size of home a first-time buyer can afford anyway.
My problem with hygge is not based upon sweeping generalisations about an entire nation, although it can seem a bit Law of Jante at times. Charlotte Abrahams, (the author of aforementioned book) defines hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’) as ‘the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming’ which means that sadly I can never achieve hygge’s lofty goals because being emotionally overwhelmed by annoying things is my raison d’etre to be frank.
I have fallen at the first post.
Recently a news report on the FB page of my local paper, the Bury Free Press, struck terror into my heart. ‘At the beginning of autumn large male house spiders, gorged from a summer of eating moths and flies, start making their way indoors in search of a mate’ it told us. All I took from this was that OBESE SPIDERS ARE HAVING SEX IN MY HOUSE. My house, my home, my hyggelig-respite from the cruel world outside is full of spiders, entwined in the throes of eight hairy-legged passion and indulging in a bit of post-coital cannibalism too. (AKA the belts ‘n braces approach to GROSSING ME OUT.) Yes, yes yes I know its nature n’all but so are pustulant boils and who would want them pustulating in the corners of ones kitchen?
Greg Nejedly, a clinical hypnotherapist, offered some advice to those of us who don’t much care for spider promiscuity in the form of ‘taking deep breaths in order to…steer ourselves into a calmer state” which is probably less useful if you are reading this in Australia and a Sydney funnel web is bearing down on you. As someone who reacts very oddly to all manner of insect bites and forgets her epipen more than is good for her, I’ll forgo the calm breathing (and being a sitting duck) and rely instead upon good old-fashioned eviction techniques called a husband or anyone who is around except me basically. Another name for this is ‘you aren’t doing feminism properly’ from the mansplainers in the cheap seats.
I feel a bit mean when I criticise hygge because it feels like I am kicking a particularly well-meaning puppy but there’s yet more barriers to ever achieving it in my house asides from my ability to shrink every pair of cashmere socks I’ve ever purchased. It’s called ‘living on one of the roads popular with homebound clubbers between 1-5 am in the morning’. Hygge embraces the concepts of togetherness and sharing which is why the inebriated residents of my fair town do love to share their loud voices with us in the early hours of the morning. Instead of being annoyed at the drunken sots arguing outside our bedroom window: the hapless men breaking up loudly with invisible partners on mobiles; the groups of weaving women who want to share with us, their rendition of some dire Taylor Swift anthem to friendship, I could go full-on hygge and seek to embrace and share too.
I could have a whole new career offering relationship advice (LTB) to wailing lovers via my open window or end them a bottle or she-wee so they no longer need to urinate against the house wall (yes, this happens). When my hyggelig deserts me I fantasise about recording what is going on and playing this lovely, mellifluous soundtrack at 6 a.m outside the homes of those club or pub owners who do not take seriously the problem of anti-social behaviour and continue to sell ridiculous amounts of cheap booze to already drunk people. It’s impossible to feel cosy beneficence towards your fellow men and women when one is sleep deprived. Mess with my hygge at your peril.
Bunny Mellon, the American socialite designer of the White House rose gardens and President Kennedy’s gravestone, kept pots of stewed apple bubbling away on the stove at her Virginia estate in tribute to the apple pies made by her mother. She understood the power of scent memory to create a sense of place no matter how vast the house or estate might be, taking visitors back to a simpler, less salubrious and more homely past, all the way back to childhood.
In her essay ‘Sense of Self’, Erin Byers Murray writes about childhood memories and of her mother and the many meals cooked by her, evenly divided between those cooked ad hoc with whatever was to hand, using a pinch of this and a dab of that, and the meals that were guided in like a plane via precise instructions in recipes torn from Southern Living magazine. Her mothers food tasted good but it was the functional ‘gotta get the kids fed’ style of cooking that was the bane of the lives of women, stripped of much of its sensual pleasure.
Then the accident happened that changed everything. A head injury stripped her mother of her sense of smell and taste (anosmia) when her olfactory nerves were damaged. Assessments determined that she was still able to differentiate between salty and sweet, albeit an ability which was now drastically reduced, and to a lesser degree, bitter and tart, but for some time, her mother put down the reins in the kitchen and the other family members took over.
Taste and scent memory is complex but this is what ‘saved’ Murray’s mother who, upon baking an almond angel cake by rote for a birthday some time after the accident- having made it hundreds of times before- realised that her mind’s ‘nose’ was being stimulated by the memory, imprinted deep within her psyche, of what this cake used to smell like. As almond essence dripped into the cake batter and was spun around the bowl by the beaters of the mixer, the scent that pervaded the warm fug of the kitchen might have been beyond her sensory reach but the recollection of it was as intrinsic to her as her ability to bake the cake from memory. And for Murry’s mother, it was enough- more than enough.
Her nerves didn’t magically regenerate and there was no wonderful TV movie recovery but she began to cook and that cooking was speculative and experimental, liberated from the constraints of sustenance cooking for children. What taste she did have could be challenged and stretched- made to work for her in combination with a new exploration of texture, appearance and mouth feel. The memories she possessed of the taste and scent of food commingled with this awareness of other qualities, ones she had paid scant attention to in the past. Her gustatory life became one of adventure and the stripping away of boundaries. It transcended the cultural mores of her native cuisine, took her to new places like Japan and Thailand and to many other lands with multi-faceted culinary aesthetics.
Take salt as an example of something we may use in a pretty straightforward manner even when our pantries contain several different types. Salt sharpens and delineates the flavour of other ingredients, uniting their parts into a whole greater than their sum. Salt is the bassline, the doo-wop, if you like, of our cooking and a useful facsimile of the world of the anosmic is to try to eat your food unsalted. You will be shocked by how blunted the different flavours are until, eventually, your palate adjusts. It does a remarkable job but how often so we consider what exactly that might be? Pure sodium chloride imparts intensity as its concentration is increased up to a subjective maximum above which no further saltiness is perceived. This ‘bliss point’, the stage at which the addition of salt ceases to increase our liking for a food varies from person to person- our salt preference is malleable. An anosmic would be at risk of adding increasing amounts of salt to overcome a blunted palate with the risk of distorting and overpowering other flavours in a way that a non anosmic wouldn’t be. However salt is of huge importance in sharpening a blunted palate too and many foods (soups, rice, eggs, and potato crisps), are pleasingly enhanced by it. Salt is proven to heighten the perception of product thickness (texture). it also enhances sweetness, masks chemical off-notes, counteracts bitterness, and rounds out overall flavor whilst strengthening and intensifying it.
I imagine Murrays’ mother surrounded by heaping piles of salt: wafer-like flakes of Maldon from nearby Essex which melt instantly delivering a bolus of super saltiness and the pink chunky crystals of Himalayan which are the salt equivalent of time-release pills. Then there are the colours; an Indian salt stained pansy-purple, gritty as gunpowder, or the delicate Kala Namak- tinted ashes-of-roses pink. Vastly different is the dramatic Cyprus black salt resembling a miniature Giants Causeway in a jar with its basalt hexagons that are slow to melt, crunchy and charcoal-dank. I see her dipping a spoon into a jar of Le Petit Saunier salted caramel sauce in its Breton saxe blue and white livery, rolling its sea-sweet flavour from the sweet-spot on her tongue to the salty and back again. I think of her recoiling as the sting of malted vinegar and salt hits her nostrils when it is sprinkled onto searingly hot chips (fries) or running her fingers through the delicate and translucent crystals of Fleur De Sel from the Guerande, sold in beige calico bags, drawn closed with a string. I hope she can do all of these things.
We know that if we lose our sense of smell, we lose much of our ability to appreciate the taste of foods because the two are closely linked. If you don’t believe this, cut a lemon in half and bite into it whilst holding your nostrils tightly closed. And we also see what we taste and smell as a unitary perception of flavour which is incorrect and is actually not a single ‘entity’ at all being made up of anatomically independent sensory systems.
There are psychological consequences to anosmia and what we can also lose is a sense of pleasure in life: an anosmic can become disengaged, anhedonic, dysthymic. It is also dangerous- as Murray points out, her mother was warned never to live alone because leaking gas would not be discernible to her. Think of other warning signs- the sweet acetone of diabetic urine or a hint of smoke on the air from a fire; the hot and clean electrical whiff when an appliance overheats or the curdle of milk on the turn. Think of the fact that we all have our unique smells, imprinted on our own offspring within moments of birth and we all sense when a loved one (or a stranger) is nearby because of what our olfactory equipment tells us, a primal and instinctive alert system that helps keep us safe. Fear and heightened emotional arousal is often described in terms of scent (an acrid smell of fear), and we associate certain scents (and tastes) with comfort (vanilla is a common one). Indeed as the Tutorial on the Sense of Smell states:
“The uncus, phylogenetically part of the ‘smell brain’ (or rhinencephalon), is functionally associated with the whole limbic system (which includes such brain areas as the amygdala, hippocampus, pyriforn cortex and hypothalmus), which is increasingly recognised to be crucial in determining and regulating the entire emotional ‘tone’. Excitation of this, by whatever means, produces heightened emotionalism and an intensification of the senses.”
And anosmia can highly correlate with a risk of emotional lability, impulsivity and problems with adapting behaviour to the lessons of experience. It can leave sufferers derealised, as Dr Rachel Hertz explains in The Scent of Desire:
” I felt trapped inside my own head, a kind of bodily claustrophobia, disassociated. It was as though I were watching a movie of my own life. When we see actors in a love scene, we accept that we can’t smell the sweat; when they take a sip of wine, we don’t expect to taste the grapes. That’s how I felt, like an observer watching the character of me.”
The average human being may recognize up to 10,000 separate odours but our language to describe those odours is nowhere near as intricate. It is very hard, near impossible to explain what something smells like to someone who has yet to smell it and when we describe a taste, it is informed very much by its scent and how this marries with taste in our noses and mouths.
At a basic biological level our responses to smell and the anticipation of taste aren’t that much different to that of a Labrador dog with its Pavlovian reactions- a set of responses that prevent the dog (and us) from dying of starvation or developing malnutrition due to disinterest. We want to seek food out, prepare it in a safe manner (because scent and taste is potentiated by cooking methods that also effectively kill off bugs), digest and utilise it effectively. But as humans we also possess full and sub consciousness; the free will and layers of cognition that allow us to transcend that basic stimulus-response mechanism and interpret, manipulate and filter the messages we receive from our senses.
In the first few months of independent life (as in independent from our mothers placenta) we display a predisposition towards the inherent sweetness of breast milk and all human babies show some aversion towards bitter foods (eat brassicas for a day while breastfeeding and see your newborns reaction) which is most likely an evolutionary throwback to when we needed discouragement from eating poisonous foods. The ever changing nature of breast milk, which is in part a result of the mothers diet, also primes an infant to cope with our human omnivorous diet and as their kidneys develop, a taste for salt emerges which roughly correlates with the time at which many babies begin to be weaned and are, as a result, exposed to higher salt levels. All other preferences are learned behaviour and that learning is so strong that unlike a Labrador, we may not overcome our dietary taboos and predilections, no matter how hungry.
Along with those dietary taboos, aversions, phobias and fads we develop strong gustatory and olfactory memories where time, place and food meld in such a way as to transport us back decades in time through our senses. This confluence functions as a way of reinforcing family bonds and developing new ones, as a way of heafing us to our territories (no matter how wide ranging or compact) whilst also encouraging us to fan outwards towards new people and places- a handy way of discouraging genetic overfamiliarity when we decide to breed. We learn to guard against foods that don’t suit us and help reinforce affection and attachment to the foods that we can easily grow and eat. We learn that food is love.
It is possible for us evoke the past so viscerally because of our ability to build emotional content into what we sense; conjured up by what we hear (the clink of Sheffield steel against a china cake plate, the sound of boiling water being poured into a teapot, the paper dry rustle of a corn husk as we wrap a tamale), by sight and via our tactile encounters. These memories and experiences are multi sensate, multi causal and have layer upon layer of meaning. Taste without context does not exist and I’m not sure we are capable of unpicking all the strands. Nature is not more complex than we think. It is more complex than we can think.
And the power of these memories! Walking along the banks of a Sardinian river one unusually hot late spring day, a sudden drench of rain penetrated the clay of the path. The air became sodden with water vapour and impregnated with the unmistakeable smell of the clay goblets and jugs used by our housekeeper in Mexico. As a child I was mildly obsessed with this roughly glazed pottery and I would nibble away at the gap between the top of the glaze and the rough clay rims. Bordering upon pica, the earthiness permeated the contents- water sharpened with a squeeze of local limes. All our drinks tasted of clay and were imbued with the love we felt for Maria and the bridge she created between two worlds, Latina and European. As I stood by that river I felt the heaviness of the goblet, so large in my five year old hands and my vision narrowed to what I could see over its rim. The clear light of the Sardinian mountains turned heavy, dusty and straw-yellow as I went back to our Saltillo kitchen and a light that shot in through the gap at the base of the heavy blinds, which had to be kept drawn in the day to keep out the vicious desert sun. It was confusing and surreal.
Erin Byers Murray’s mother instinctively knew what she needed to do to live fully in the world rather than continue to tolerate a gustatory existence diminished of colour, sense and the opportunity to make fresh memories. That almond cake was her Proustian moment in a far more significant way because it guided her towards a new future as opposed to Proustian wistful musings about a lost past. It is also a less frivolous example than that a stratospherically wealthy woman able to afford to keep pots of apples bubbling on the stoves of her many homes, but it is no more or less touching. Both women were negotiating the tricky present and future by invoking their sensory past.
Many of us still struggle to talk about menstruation and when it is discussed in the media, there is often a hostile response from men and women who clearly find the topic uncomfortable. However when this results in discrimination and additional pressures on girls and women in developing countries and war zones where their access to sanitary protection and toilet facilities is limited, women and men in the west have a duty to speak out.
When Heather Watson crashed out of the Australian Open she coyly alluded to the reason why her game was sub-par, ““I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things” breaking what many commentators describe as a taboo in sport- the discussion of how the menstrual cycle may or may not affect performance and resulting in a few press articles.
Is there a taboo about discussing it in real life or is it a case that the real life situation isn’t reflected in the media coverage and if this is the case, then whose ‘fault’ might that be? The British hockey player Hannah McLeod, in an interview with the Guardian where she talks about her own team-mates attitudes, claims that “we talk about it all the time…it comes up very frequently” then elaborates further, stating that on day one of their period, each member of the squad has to email their strength and conditioning coach, Ben Rosenblatt.
It is refreshing to learn that Rosenblatt creates training programmes that reflect the menstrual status of each hockey player in McLeods team but research into the effects of menstruation and the cycle itself on performance offers inconclusive and variable results. The Melbourne-based sports physician and Chief Medical Officer for Netball Australia, Dr Susan White stated: ”
“World’s best performances have been recorded at all stages of the menstrual cycle, including the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases.” She added, “There is one study in Italy that indicates female soccer players may have a greater injury risk before and during their menstrual periods. It is unclear whether it was because of physiological or psychological factors or a combination of them. There are no other studies at this stage that support this research.”
New research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (2011), investigated the effects of the menstrual cycle phase using eleven rowers, concluding that not only was their endurance performance not influenced by a normal menstrual cycle, their energy expenditure, oxygenation and heart rate were also not significantly different during the menstrual cycle phases.
These studies are focusing upon ‘normal’ menstrual cycles though and are not concerned with the psychological and social impact of menstruation either. It is fair to assume that elite sportswomen pay as much attention to the fine tuning of their reproductive health as they do to all physiological functioning and it is also reasonable to assume that the assessment and evaluation of their cycles would be a normal and unremarkable aspect of their lives. The pitfalls of menstruation and any inhibition about discussing it must surely lie with the school playing fields, the changing rooms and everyday sporting lives of women at non-elite level. There is also the wider implications for women performing in any work place and public sphere where scrutiny is high and easy management of it is limited or complicated, What do women in the forces, women who live and work in poorer nations or isolated parts of the world (Antarctica) and beyond (the space station) do?
Remember those days of coyly approaching the (often male) PE teacher before swimming or cross country to tell him that it was ‘that time’ and therefore you might need to be excused ot have close access to a toilet? Remember the anxieties of using sanitary protection under skimpy and stretchy gym-knickers, leotards and skirts if you were yet to graduate to tampons? Remember the fear of accidents when wearing tennis whites? British tennis No5 Tara Moore does, and has spoken out about the nightmares she has about getting her period during Wimbledon, not just because it might affect performance, but add in the horror of white skirts, blood and the banks of press photographers there to capture the moment. Moore is not the only woman engaged in an open dialogue about menstruation and leakage. Check out the instagram feed of Mayan Toledano ( @thisismayan) for the image, below, which caused many complaints- that of a woman wearing underwear stained with blood. Mayan owns a company that makes underwear and clothing with a strong feminist ethos.
It is hard to unselfconsciously tumble across a gym-mat or upside down on a trampoline when you fear all eyes are on your crotch. Girls and women who suffer from excessive bleeding, severe pain or unpredicable cycles face even more problems and when you remember that the menstrual cycle can take a few years to regulate itself in a young girl, we can see that the problem is not a rare one, and something that teachers or care givers would encounter frequently. So what is the impact on ‘ordinary females?’
Researching this article and soliciting requests for comments led to multiple requests to use ‘first name only,’ especially from younger women. Many said they had no problems asking fathers, brothers and boyfriends to buy sanitary protection for them, they also had no problems letting the males in their life know they were having a period. But they all baulked at being identified in this piece. As Emily (19) who is a keen runner, said,
“I don’t think I am ashamed of having periods but it is embarrassing and I don’t want to become the local poster girl for it.”
I spoke to girls competing at county and regional level in gymnastics, ballet, boxing and contact sports, horseriding and long distance running and while all of them applauded Heather Watson,
“she has opened the door to a more realistic conversation about how women manage when they work or compete at a high level or in difficult conditions” (Sarah, dancer in her late twenties),
they were reluctant to identify themselves. As Louise explained,
“I am happy for my boxing trainer to know that my abdomen is tender and bloated and ‘yes I do need a toilet break every twenty minutes because my stomach is upset’ but I don’t necessarily want the whole world to know that, let alone my opponent.”
Sarah spoke of the proximity of ballet and dance, of being lifted by her male dance partner who has “his hands in my armpits, my crotch, between my legs (during lifts). Your partner odten touches your stomach and because we are so attuned to each others bodies and how they move and perform, they can feel when I have pre menstrual bloating.” She laughs and agrees at the suggestion that they are more in tune with her physiology than her husband:
“I am not embarrassed about that but…the audience, the stage hands seeing any leaks..then I have seconds to change a tampon in some of the more demanding ballets when I am rarely off stage. I’ll let you imagine what dancers end up having to do and those costumes, the classical ones and all in one body leotards do NOT come off easily or swiftly.”
Sarah is keen to get the point across that dancers tend to be very earthy about their bodies,“they are tools” but despite this, she still feels anxiety about her ‘tool’ letting her down and bleeding visibly in public.
Interestingly, discussion around the management of menstruation pointed out issues with the rules on the use of medication and herbal aids which means that many painkillers and drugs that affect prostglandins (a useful way of reducing cramps) may not be part of the box of tricks available to them. As Emma said,
“The drugs that work best on pain and stomach cramps make me woozy and disinclined to get off the sofa. And the nature of my sport (roller derby) means that I compete all the time so taking the pill to postpone or stop my periods would mean I’d probably never be able to have one. Which makes me worry because I think it is healthy to have periods ” Her conclusion? “I am left having to manage it and hoping that the world won’t stop turning if I accidentally leak because things are at the heavy stage- I think I’d take a few weeks to feel I could show my face in public again if that happened and that there’s always the risk that I’ll be all over the internet, being laughed at.”
Emma echoes a lot of women in her belief that it is not ideal to prevent menstrual periods over long stretches of times. A period offers a woman a mini health-status report every month. Regular menstruation that is not overly painful or troublesome tells us that our system is balanced, that we are neither too underweight or overweight. It is a good indicator that we are not becoming overly stressed, that we are not pregnant, that our uterus can prepare for implantation and that we are not yet approaching menopause (important to know if you are planning a family in the future). Take them away and despite their nuisance value, we might feel something is amiss.
The euphemisms about menstruation don’t help an open and frank discussion though. Girl thing, time of the month, Aunt Flo, getting the painters in, wading through the Red Sea; they are many and varied. Same for assumptions, sterotypes and misapprehensions about the physiology of the menstrual cycle and its effects, some of which were mentioned by other elite sportswomen in their reactions to Heather Watson’s statement. Here’s former tennis player Annabel Croft: “It was quite sweet, the way Heather said it…you are quite emotional at that time.” Not all women experience heightened emotions during menstruation and her words had that weird undercurrent of unintended infantilism and internalised stereotypes common to the way the behaviour of menstruating women is depicted. Hence the scene in 30 Rock which saw Amelia Earharts disappearance whilst attempting to fly across the Pacific being blamed upon the unexpected arrival of her period. Go down that road and you arrive at the ‘menstruating women are unpredictable and unreliable’ belief that keeps us out of the boardroom and the sporting field.
Many religions and cultures codify elaborate rituals and rules about how a woman must behave during her menstrual period. For Orthodox Jews, the Old Testament stipulates a woman is unclean during menstruation but the Talmud goes further, stating that her period of uncleanness lasts for an additional week after menstruation has ended.
“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” Leviticus 15:19 (KJV)
Niddah is the word used to denote the menstruating woman and her period of uncleanness which defiles everyone and everything she touches. She may not have sexual intercourse with her husband either. His existence is the perfect state, the default setting for cleanliness and a woman risks contaminating that. Only the ritual bath (“mitweh”) at the end of the period can render her fit to return to family participation.
Islam emphasises the normality of menstruation whilst regarding its blood as unclean (najis) although this inpurity should not prevent the woman from leading a ‘normal’ family life. However entry to the mosque and touching the writings of the Qur’an, the names and attributes of Allah, the names of the Prophet, the Imams and Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) are forbidden. The Qu’uran has this to say about sex during menstruation:
“They ask you about menstruation. (O Muhammad) tell (them that) menstruation is a discomfort (for the women, it is a period when they pass through physical and emotional tension. Therefore,) do not establish sexual relations with them during the menses, and (again you are reminded that) do not approach them (sexually) until the blood stops.”
In Uganda and Nepal, teams of people are tackling the challenges menstruation has for local girls, both as a taboo and the resulting issues of hygiene and social exclusion which sees school attendance plummit. The cultural tradition of Chhaupadi in Nepal, believes menstruation to be polluting and harmful to others, meaning females must remain isolated, abstaining from contact with other people, often in what are called ‘menstrual huts’ with their attendant poor hygiene, risk of disease and horrendous stigma. In Uganda, many menstruating girls are prevented from cooking food and banned from carrying newborn children. Girls in Uganda face less social restriction during their periods, but for them the fear of the consequences of inadequate sanitary protection means they avoid school and social activities. Teasing from peers and even teachers is a common occurrence.
The same problem has been reported in other African countries and across India too where school attendance past the menarche drops off drastically in poorer, more rural communities. UNICEF reports that “in countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20% of the school year,” with many girls dropping out at around 11 to 12-years-old. They may also miss school because they are not educated about their periods, and neither is the school which thus fails to provide secure, discreet and clean toilet facilities for them.
The word ‘blessing’ is derived from the Old English for ‘bleeding’ and indeed the menses were once regarded as a sacred mysterious event being as they were then, unexplained, linked to the even more mysterious moon and part of a cycle of fertility that begat life. In the Americas, some Native American tribes celebrate and revere them- Apache tradition calls girls at menarche “Changing Women”, and later on, “White Painted Women” whlst Navajo girls run towards the rising sun. However the Sundance ceremony sees menstruating women segregated to their own dancing area so as to act as counter balance to the energy flow of the main dance.
Some women are reclaiming this worshipful attitude yet I am extremely wary of what I call the ‘woo’ side of menstruation activism: all that Mother Earth and menstrual goddess rhetoric; the worshipping of the menarche as a sacred rite of passage, elevating its status as culmination of the fertility cycle and the sole ability of the female to bring forth a new life tend to leave me cold. Yes, when you consider the odds, the fact that women get pregnant at all can be awe inspiring (so many ‘if’s and variables) but the whole of our fertility has an easy biological explanation; our uteri are not ‘mysterious.’
Elevating the status of menstruation is one end of a spectrum that sees the less celebratory rituals that isolate and shame women at its opposite end. They take what is actually a biologically practical solution to a product we no longer need-the spongy endometrial build up- and imbue it with a spiritual ‘woo’ side that cloaks it in layers of ritual and cultural rules, albeit women friendly ones. Seeking to make the explainable more mysterious in order to reclaim it from misogyny and misunderstanding is not the way to break away from taboo as it risks alienating women who wish to shrug off their embarrassment but who do not want to publicly discourse about the nature of their menstrual blood or celebrate something which can be significantly physically debilitating. No matter how positively you embrace or re-frame menstruation, it is often inconvenient, physically uncomfortable for many and downright painful for some. There are women (and men) who want to tackle the taboo of menstrual talk without attaching any special spiritual significance to it.
Reclaiming the celebratory ‘woo’ side will, I fear, allow men to cop out of trying to understand (‘womens stuff’) and also encourages the idea that hormones and periods cause us to become unpredictable, mysterious and capricious. I do not wish to give the impression that I rise with my red hair and eat men like air at certain times of the month. Nor do I wish to be defined as a woman who is prone to eating loads of chocolate, throwing tantrums or requiring special treatment because I am some kind of menstruating goddess creature. More seriously, imbuing menstruation with a spiritual and celebratory aspect is not very different to those menstrual huts and ritual baths which after all, are the sum total of men and women trying to explain and then contain what is/was to them, the mysterious and the indefinable.
What we do need however, is greater equality in sports commentary, reporting and representation. We will not get a practical and objective evaluation of the ways in which a womans fitness and sporting ability can be affected by her menstrual cycle when the world of sports media is, in itself, so male dominated. We will not see intelligent and sensitive sports reporting that understands the impact of female biology- something that is simply not on the radar of most men. Do young girls risk losing an interest in sports at puberty because of fears about their appearance and the difficulties of managing their periods? We need to research this and make a space for their experiences to be heard and by doing this, we will help prevent this from happening. Oh and we might end up with more than one toilet break per set for female tennis players at Wimbledon and better designed sanitary protection too.
Donating money to charities, blogging and tweeting about the issue all helps frank discussion too. Please check out the links below. In addition, women in Syria and similar war zones face added privation. Please read this article which tells you more about their plight and what you can do to help.
‘Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox‘ goes the latest Sport England campaign designed to encourage women to take more physical exercise and feel better for doing it. Did I say feel better? What I, or rather the ad appears to suggest is that even during sport and physical exercise, we women apparently never escape the confines of our sexuality and the (presumably) male gaze – even when we are sweaty and really really busy doing something else. Women may feel free in the gym but really we are still in chains.
Some of the words and images used suggest that a womans sense of self must incorporate an awareness of our sexual attractiveness as we participate in sport. This surely runs counter to an important goal of physical exercise- transcending the limitations of body and psyche caused by our conscious and subconscious thoughts. I cannot see any other explanation for the use of the curious term ‘fox.’ Surely sports should allow us to walk away from the travail of worrying about how we appear to others and we should only be judged, if any judgement is required at all, on our sporting prowesss and achievements and nothing else?
This Girl Can, a campaign launched by Sport England aims to encourage more women to take up sport and physical exercise and is backed by celebrities including Clare Balding, Dame Kelly Holmes and Sally Gunnell. It kicks off with a TV commercial peopled by women of all shapes, sizes and ages participating in a raft of sports and physical activities. Created by the ad agency FCB Inferno, the 90 second ad only uses ‘normal’ women set to Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On and is backed up by a nationwide poster campaign with said same women from all walks of life with banner slogans such as the aforementioned pig/fox and ‘I jiggle therefore I am.’
Back in the late eighties, even misogynistic anti semite Mel Gibson, or rather the character he played in ‘What Women Want’, working on a sporting ad campaign with costar Helen Hunt, came to the conclusion that sport should allow a woman the time to shrug off her self consciousness and psychological chains. We appear to have moved on very little from this (albeit imaginary) scenario.
Nobody is under any illusion that female athletes are judged solely on their sporting ability and we have only to look at the bile directed at Rebecca Addlington regarding her looks to see that. And the way they are spoken about in the press is still very much predicated upon their looks and sex appeal as are some of the endorsements and contracts they attract. Any pride in their physicality, hard work and the success it brings is marred by constant reminders that it is female physicality and therefore it must be appraised sexually and aesthetically.
This Girl Can continues our obsession with female flesh, encouraging us to disregard the fact that we wobble and jiggle, have cellulite and uncontrolled flesh spilling out of our clothing. The fact that we are depicted as casting off our shackles- our Spanx, control tights and body taming underpinnings, to let ourselves take up a bigger unfettered space in the universe is undermined by the drawing of attention to those perceived flaws, whether or not it is us that sees them as so, or a sexist society.
Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England talked about some of the barriers to the participation of women in sport: “One of the strongest themes was a fear of judgment. Worries about being judged for for being the wrong size, not fit enough and not skilled enough came up time and time again. We want to address that.” Yet the video, despite being beautifully shot, still worships at the cult of the body, objectifies the bodies of those filmed and makes those gazing upon them passively complicit with this. Whatever the intent was to redefine what kind of female body is acceptable, the campaign is still concerning itself with parameters and makes no attempts to defy convention.
If female flesh mattered not one jot in the gender scheme of things it would go unmentioned as it does in sports campaigns aimed at men which tend to highlight the skills, prowesss, work and effort required. A mans appearance is related very closely to utilty and functionality, ideas rarely associated in advertising about or aimed at women. They don’t use male flesh to tell men they want them to not focus on their flesh and they do not invoke an unwelcome gaze. Even more importantly, campaigns aimed at men do not tell them they need to disregard their physical flaws, either imagined or actual. By saying ‘disregard’ you are stating that there is something TO disregard and the psychology of self consciousness, of shyness and body unconfidence will hone in on that like a javelin.
Equally important is the worthiness and higher moral purpose that must come attached to many female activities, including what we’d imagine as something relatively uncomplicated- sport. Where is the argument for exercise for the sake of exercise? Exercise that is enjoyed purely for the simple pleasure in physicality it generates? Instead of a pure and uncomplicated relationship with their corporeal selves, women are encouraged to take part in order to strengthen friendships, manage and reduce the stress caused by work, parenthood and caring whilst improving our emotional and physical strength. There is no strong case made for pure unfettered, unintellectual and unanalytical pleasure, no case made for total abandonment to the testing of ones body against standards that have nothing to do with how it looks to others. There is no permission for women to exist solely for themselves nor are we permitted to exist in the moment purely for that moment, free from intrusion.
This campaign has good intentions but at the end of the day, it is still reminding us that we women have a mountain to climb when it comes to equality in sports and it is not handing us the best equipment with which to climb it.
If you are thinking of writing an article on mental health and illness, why not use our handy guide to some of the most popular and predominate images of this in the media- the ones that are the symbolic and metaphorical equivalent of a brick over the head in their subtlety, bearing little accuracy to the lived experience of people.
Clearly media folk are super important and very busy so we’ve decided to save you having to think at all about how you depict mental illness and mental health problems. So let us help you with those important editorial decisions.
The first one is the most critical. It is vital that all images of people with mental illness convey the levels of their despair in the most terribly obvious manner and the easiest way to do this is by use of the #HeadClutch. The only decision you need to make is about how many hands the person uses to clutch their face-
(1) Is it a one hand kind of article:
(2)or a double hander?
Once you have made this decision, we need to consider the surroundings and remember that people with mental health problems-
(3) appear to spend a lot of time in alleyways.
(4) Or on the floor in the dark.
(5) They also appear to like to sit on the side of an unmade bed. Never a made one.
(6) If they are male and have ever had a mental health problem then they will invariably be unshaven.
(7) And spend a lot of time clutching their heads on a park bench.
(8) If it is raining or too cold outside, then the alternative is the corner of a room.
(9) Or on the floor by open doorways with light streaming out of them. To convey, you know, a light at the end of the tunnel in an artistic manner. See too- the Venetian blind backdrop as that’s very popular, especially with picture editors who grew up listening to Japan in the 80’s.
(10) Or maybe they prefer to spend time in weird never ending corridors?
(11) Which is enough to turn anybody to drink.
(12) When there is light in the world of mental health imagery, it is often a light not seen in nature. We like this pink shade to ring in the changes.
(13) And when things get really bad, there’s no longer any need to even see their face. And a bit of fog never did any harm- go that pathetic fallacy!
(14) Although sometimes articles are illustrated by photos of people with mental health issues doing extra weird things like playing ‘Ring a Roses’ the wrong way around..This symbolises hope apparently.
The MOST important thing you need to remember though is the #HeadClutch because without it, how will any of your readers know that the article is about mental health problems?
Every single one of these images was taken from an article in the mainstream press about mental illness or how to regain mental health. Google those terms and see what images come up.
Here are some other images of people you could use who may or may not have mental health problems, the point being it is not a fixed state or something that necessarily shows-
(1) People with other people. Talking.
(2) Or just people.
(3) Or finding comfort in the coping strategies they have developed to manage their symptoms.
(4) or follow the example of the IAINews and use images like this to illustrate the themes of your piece on the future of psychiatry:
(5) Or get really creative and use photos showing groups of four people to illustrate the one in four stat that any one of them could have a mental health problem. Here’s four people doing regular stuff. Like eating and drinking.
(6) Or images that show just how strong people with mental health problems can be and how strong they HAVE to be to cope with all the stereotypical crap in the media.
So- editors, photo editors, journalists and copy writers….Are you going to settle for one of these same old stereotypes or maybe, just maybe, you might decide to be a little more careful and creative with the images you choose to portray mental illness in your next copy?
Next week I will be visiting The Gatehouse in Bury St Edmunds, a local food bank to explore how they are planning for the influx of extra users during the Winter, a time of greater poverty due to the competing needs of heating the home versus feeding those that live in it. In the meantime, here’s a reminder that the need for food banks continues as does the need for us to support them. Please donate- links and information as to how can be found at the end of this article.
The amount of people using food banks continues to rise despite the much heralded ‘economic recovery’, trotted out by the government in an attempt to deter us from believing what we see with our own eyes. The cost of living coupled with insecure work contracts and slashed benefits that fail to keep pace with the demands on our wallets have conspired to send even those in full time work in search of their nearest food bank, a fact the government would like to obscure because it contradicts the ugly message that to work is to reach the economic promised land. Indeed, the inability of people to feed themselves adequately has been described as a breach of international law by violating the human right to food by a coalition of anti-poverty charities, including the Trussell Trust. who have described the Government as “increasingly harsh” in its use of sanctions against people attempting to claim benefits. Half of those referred to food banks in 2013-14 were as a result of benefit delays or changes with 8 out of 10 of food banks seeing more cases relating to benefit sanctions over the past year. Tougher punishments for those on jobseeker’s allowance were introduced by the Coalition last October (2013) raising the minimum sanction from one to four weeks. Benefits can now be stopped for up to three years.
The latest figures from The Trussell Trust show that in 2014, a total of 913,138 people were given three days supply of emergency food compared to 346,992 between 2012- 2013, 423 food banks have been launched and 8318 thousand tonnes of food was donated to food banks over the previous year.
The Living Wage Campaign works hard to raise awareness of the problems faced by those in low paid employment citing a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that claims there are more working families living in poverty in the UK than non-working families for the first time since the birth of the welfare state. The JRF attributes this to a sustained fall in the standard of living, causing average incomes to fall by 8% since the 2008 peak and around 2 million people to live on an income that would be considered below the poverty line back in 2008. Working age adults without children form the largest group in poverty with 4.7 million people falling into this category and plummeting incomes over the last few years erasing all the gains previously made.
Despite a strong safety net being deemed vital in ensuring social mobility across all age groups, government cuts via the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and other housing benefit changes, ESA sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims cause further harm to those who are already barely managing to keep their heads above water. Millions of people are living in fear of one more thing going wrong- a car repair or broken washing machine, unexpected dental bills (because they do not qualify for free assistance), sickness, outgrown shoes, not being paid over a bank holiday because they are self employed or paid for work done (and their firm shuts down) or loss of working hours because the weather is too bad and they work outdoors- any of which will tip them over the edge into a financial abyss from which they will never claw themselves back out of.
The experience of food banks is that more of their users are unable to find reliable work because of a myriad of issues and users then go on to be further handicapped by benefit delays, sanctions and even benefit refusal. In The Guardian (Nov 2014) a report by Melissa Viney says: “The most recent government figures (to June 2014) show that only 2% of longer-term ESA claimants find sustained employment. Independent research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has found that disabled people are about half as likely to find employment as non-disabled people. Last week, a report suggested that officials were considering cutting ESA, which is paid to around 2 million people, by as much as £30 a week as the chancellor, George Osborne, seeks a £12bn cut in the welfare bill.” A DWP whistleblower claimed “ the majority of my ESA caseload of about 100 clients were not well enough to have been on the government’s welfare-to-work Work Programme, but should instead have been signposted to charities that could support them with their multiple problems.” Instead people were left to negotiate a system that could not effectively place them in work because it is trying to force square pegs into skimpy round holes.
In a job market that is over subscribed, the disabled (including the mentally ill) are not going to get the pickings. In addition, staff were not given copies of job seekers Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and so were unable to offer any kind of tailored support or advice. The DWP state that providers “have the freedom to design any work-related activity so it is appropriate to the person’s condition”, yet fail to address the issue of staff being unable to do this because they do not possess the right information on the person.
The blasé cruelty of ministers such as Lord Freud, who slurred desperate families by claiming that people were turning up just because there was ‘free food’, and not out of necessity is breathtaking. He would be perfectly aware of the surveys that show many people wouldn’t consider turning to a food bank for help when they need it: they find the stigma attached to ‘asking for food’ too humiliating.He would also be aware that families need to be referred to local food banks; you cannot just rock up with a shopping bag and fill it at will. In a seemingly desperate attempt to smear the charities who run food banks (including the Trussell Trust), DWP department directory Neil Couling, gave evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee on food banks and questioned the motivations of the UK’s biggest supplier of emergency food aid by implying that a motivation for their growth was Christian “evangelism” and that the food banks were merely an “evangelical device”. This elicited a furious reaction from the chair of the Trussell Trust who wrote: “Please provide me immediately with the evidence you have to support this assertion. You are directly challenging the integrity of a registered charity and its trustees both past and present. If you are not able to provide evidence to support this assertion please write immediately to the Scottish Parliament Welfare Reform Committee to withdraw the statement.”
We all remember Jack Monroe’s bleakly truthful blog posts about her own food poverty, and the resulting desperate attempts by the right wing press and its sympathisers to discredit her. Failing to comply with the ‘feckless, fat and lazy’ stereotype that is ignorantly trotted out by those who should be chained to a food bank and made to listen to their users and their children (who surely do not deserve to go without) made her an articulate threat and not easily dismissed. Ms Monroe faced them down, providing researched, clear and objective rebuttals, trembling with well controlled, justifiable outrage. She continues to highlight food poverty in the UK and the structural issues underpinning this alongside imaginative and accurately costed out recipes that are based on ingredients that are truly inexpensive (or should I say not as expensive?). I have cooked from them, own both her books and encourage others who need cost effective, nourishing meal ideas to do so. (Her pasta flavoured with a jar of 19p fish paste that itself has no nasties in the ingredients is genius)
In the USA, Linda Tirado recently authored her first book ‘Hand to Mouth’ after posting an essay about the American poverty trap online whilst working two low-paid jobs, which went viral. Extending it into the now book, Tirado has similarly been exposed to the same slanderous much raking attempts to discredit her, resulting in her posting her welfare records online plus a devastatingly brave and honest video in which she discussed appalling access to dental care and the way this impacts upon a persons job worthiness in the eyes of employers. Poor dental care is not only an aesthetic issue either when you consider the positive correlation dental decay has with cardiac problems and what these cost the public health service of any country. As usual, a government is relying on short term measurable actions rather than investing more on the medium and longer term measures that will save more in the long run: the latter are unfortunately not as immediately impressive to a voting public with short term moral attention deficits. Tirado lays waste to the American Dream and the much bandied ethos that if you want it and work for it, you will have it, irrespective of social class or cultural background. The fact that millions work over fifty hours a week in minimum wage zero contract positions yet still cannot afford to feed or house themselves is terrifying and subversive proof that this is no longer true. No wonder the establishment seeks to silence her.
During the course of researching this piece I have met men and women who:
Wear glasses with a prescription out of date by years, lenses scratched and smeared because they cannot afford to replace them (again, you only get free eye tests and prescriptions if you are on a very low income or receive a higher level of tax credits);
Have to struggle on with painful teeth but do not qualify for or cannot find NHS dental care. (Remember that travelling to meet repeated appointments to an NHS dentist forty miles away is out of reach for people with little money for public transport or petrol.) I have also met people with badly fitting dentures because the NHS pairs are not adequate and they cannot afford to go private;
Go out foraging for fruit and vegetables not because they love to go back to nature of a weekend or have read Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s or Renee Redzepi’s latest tome on foraged cheffery but because they cannot afford to buy decent quantities of fruit and veg (and this includes stealth raids on fields of sweetcorn, cabbages and local orchards). They live too far away from local markets or discount supermarkets and having to spend a tenner on transport wipes out any monies saved;
Are teachers, buying breakfast and ‘snacks’ for their pupils out of their own pockets because they are clearly coming to school hungry-and not because their parents are feckless either but because there is only enough for a tiny bowl of cereal or one piece of toast. And when you eat not quite enough cumulatively over days or weeks, it is much harder to work all morning on smaller rations- this despite Michael Gove’s accusation that ‘feckless parenting’ lies behind this;
Have to return some food items to the food bank because they cannot afford to cook them or have run out of gas on their pre-paid credit meter, instead relying on foods that can be cheaply heated or eaten cold;
Shamefacedly admit to taking toilet paper from public toilets because they cannot afford to buy it. They choose to spend the money they do have on what goes into their children’s mouths rather than what comes out of their bottoms;
Have had to stay inside for the best part of a week because they cannot always afford decent sanitary protection and feel too ashamed to admit this. Or they ration what they do have or use cheaper, less efficacious products.
I have seen the shame on the face of one father as he tells me about sneaking into schools lost property room in the hope of finding an unnamed school sweatshirt in the right size that they can use for their child. They worry themselves sick about birthdays and Christmas, about their kids being invited to parties and hiding from trick or treaters because they have nothing they can give them; about the school trips that they cannot afford and the fact that they forever window shop on life, faced pressed against the glass and not yearning for much, just the chance to afford a treat or a day out, something to relieve the monotony and exhaustion because being poor is so very tiring. Many had good jobs when they had their children, or were in good marriages that then failed. They tried to make good choices, didn’t live beyond their means and didn’t flash the plastic even though previous governments did their level best to encourage us all to live on credit and delayed consequences.
A recent poll by Kelloggs has also revealed that almost one third of teachers admit to bringing in food for pupils they think may have missed breakfast and two fifths of school staff (38%) know of pupils who have not enough to eat on a daily basis. Teachers talk of lethargic children with 83% commenting that they had noticed that their pupils could not concentrate properly. Again, the blame was ascribed to breakdowns in benefit assessment, a living wage that is not a living wage and in some cases, parents failing to ensure children were adequately nourished at breakfast times.
As Winter approaches, more people will be forced to choose between heating their home adequately and eating properly with a recent Which? survey for the Tonight programme revealing that 46% of respondents plan to cut back spending in other areas to pay their winter energy bills. In an ITV programme shown on Nov 6th, reporter Chris Choi put together a log of his experience in a cold chamber to simulate the conditions experienced by those living in fuel poverty, a room cooled to 12 degrees. Interviews with health and social care professionals discuss the problems this causes for the most vulnerable, exacerbating existing health conditions and rendering them vulnerable to a host of others.
The UK is supposed to be built on a bedrock of christian principles but the fact is, if you object to your tax pounds being spent on the poor, you are not one. This government happily trots out christian ideology and mores when it suits, yet ignores its central tenets. I do not believe that the greatest goodness comes from being a religious person yet I do hold those that claim to be to higher standards, especially when it is used to justify moral and legal pronouncements on how we live and how the country is run accordingly. When those judgements are used to justify punitive measures against the poorest and whip up hatred and derision towards them we see the moral ugliness of those in charge.
In the Guardian on December 8 2014, the paper warns of impending Conservative party hostility to an all party report on food banks which warns that Britain is “stalked by hunger caused by low pay, a growth in inequality, harsh benefit sanctions regime and social breakdown”. The Conservative party is seeking to avert a damaging rift with the Church of England over this with the church-funded report describing voluntary groups as “courageously fighting “a social Dunkirk” without the assistance of the government”, and calls for urgent action to ensure ministers do more to combat hunger, including joining a new coordinating body and asking supermarkets to do more with surplus unsold products.
The initial Conservative reaction to leaks of the report – which is formally published today – was hostile, with one minister claiming the increased use of food banks was due to greater publicity about their existence. Read the article here.
“The operation will consist of anterior release of the thoracic curve through double mini thoracotomy on the convex side of the right side of the deformity. Second stage will be posterior correction with multi segmental fixation system and two rods. The surgery takes practically all day.”
The explanation on this letter from my daughters consultant neuro-orthopaedic surgeon made sense to me because I have invested some of my working life in training to decode the mysterious and protective language of medicine. It deals in the measurable, the objective and the recordable, flying in the face of the vagaries of the human body and its messy emotions. Some weeks after receiving that letter, we had a last meeting with her surgeon and his specialist registrar at nine pm on the day before the surgery, down in the reception area of the X Ray department, my daughter safely sedated and asleep upstairs. This meeting dealt with the less objective- a promise to do their best and an admission that sometimes things could go wrong- two weeks before a young boy having a similar operation had died of post operative complications. Our surgeon and his specially trained team- handpicked by him to manage the demands of a surgical procedure that used to be two-stage and now, thanks to his hard work could be done all in one, were all deeply distressed by this loss. We shook hands and I remember focusing on his hand in mine, steady, dry-palmed and cool. I felt reassured. I did not have doubts.
Nearly seventeen years earlier and pregnant with my daughter (and first-born) I made a home and a garden and read Sylvia Plath- happy Plath, herself pregnant and writing about her upside down tumbling unborn child. In ‘You’re’, I homed in on her words: ‘Bent backed Atlas, our travelled prawn’ and this image of a curled spine, the bone traced pale in the darkness of the womb had come to life in the smudgy early scan photos I brought home. The lightness and brightness of my daughters backbone were illuminated on that little screen then captured in a photo, the dark walnut of a heart and her own moon skull just like Plath’s baby which carried the weight of her hopes, just as my own unborn child carried mine.
Our spines are our midline, fulcrum and linchpin. They give us shape, hold us up and channel the electrical sparks that in turn give us motor, volition and drive, movement, or the ability to choose to be still. A spine guides the body as it grows and develops and is metaphor for all kinds of pep talks: “Hold your head high!”, “Stand proud” “Show some back bone!” and sometimes, self reproach “spineless”. As my daughter grew, her spine turned rogue on her and one evening as she leaned over the sink to brush her teeth, shortly after returning from a holiday somewhere hot where she wore few clothes and ran in the sand, straight-backed and carefree, I saw that had changed. Somehow in a few short months, it looked as if her scapula had been pushed upwards and towards her clavicle and the top of her shoulders. When she stood and straightened, it did not straighten with her. I traced the line of spine with my eye and it did not follow the customary route- the one my eyes wanted to take.
A deep breath and a call to the doctor the next morning started the process that led to our time at a regional hospital, home to the team that would change everything for her. And as two years rolled past, we watched her spine continue to curl, curve and twist, copying the name of what afflicted her- scoliosis with its S and ss, onomatopoeic and disliked with roller coaster twists of consonants and vowels. Her ribs twisted into a wing bulging out of her side, her shoulder blade reared upwards and she ached with both the effort of supporting a skeleton which was not supporting her and the physical discomfort of lungs restricted in their cage of twisted rib.
“The waiting is the worst” became her (and our) mantra. The repeat out-patient visits, the measuring with callipers and a series of acronyms that moved her in and out of dark tunnels (MRI) and moved around her (CT) and asked her to stand semi-naked and vulnerable in rooms empty except for large machines and strangers peering through a window in a lead-protected room (X Ray). Adolescence is a time when a child redefines their boundaries, asserts their privacy and develops their sense of impending adult self, but my daughter was being stripped naked and asked to offer up her internal and external self for examination and photography. “The waiting is the worst” moved from something thought to something chanted as she lay on the trolley, rolling down to the anaesthesia department, waiting to be ‘flown’ by a quietly assuring teddy bear of an anaesthetist who promised he would not leave her and did not- he stayed with her not only for the thirteen-hour surgery as was his remit, but also one to one’d her in the recovery room and ITU. His own memory of losing his last scoliosis-afflicted patient was fresh in his mind. My daughter was the first surgical case after that tragedy as the team had taken a few weeks to reassess and try to learn from what happened whilst we sat at home and wobbled and worried.
We were and remain grateful to her surgeon who insisted he would not undertake the surgery until my daughter had done her research and could show she was fully cognizant of what it would involve, both surgery and the arduous and often tedious rehabilitation. A familiar pattern assumed itself- a visit to the surgeon for monitoring, a chat on the way home followed by research online supervised by us, then tears, anger and finally pragmatism. “I have no choice so I need to get on with it. The waiting is the worst.”. In the United Kingdom, Scoliosis and its variant forms affect 3 or 4 children out of every 1,000 and can develop at any age, but is more common at the start of adolescence. In very young children, Scoliosis may correct itself as they grow but in older children and adults, it is unlikely that scoliosis will improve without treatment and in some cases the curvature may get progressively worse. My daughter was one of them and she soon achieved a magnificent curve of 85%: a spine akin to the curviest roller coaster at Alton Towers- a double curve in fact (Kypho Scoliosis) as we watched in trepidation. Our fears and her spine appeared to spiral off in tandem.
“The patient will be nursed in bed for seven days. After six to eight weeks the patient is usually well enough to travel by car. The patient will not be able to sit for six to eight weeks and will have to remain flat on their back or upright for short walks to the bathroom. The patient will not be fit to travel home by car and will be transported in an ambulance.”
Seven days of chest drains and urinary catheters. Of morphine pumps and a ward filled with women twenty to thirty years older because she fell into the gap between child and adult services. Obtaining the menu from the children’s ward was reassuring- fish fingers and chips and teddy bear-shaped food allowed her to regress back to a time that seemed commensurate with her level of dependence. Yet the morphine also made her strangely adult and stoned; sage pronouncements came from this tiny, wounded creature in her bed. We pressed the PCA (Patient controlled anaesthesia) for her when she was asleep in those early days to ensure pain did not wake her and her sleep was our respite too. It allowed us to drop our adult guard and slump, show our worry on our faces to each other and the staff. Gradually though, this turned into a belief that it was going to be okay. Strange fevers from things growing in her bones would not come to take her away. MRSA was the monster under the bed we feared the most and as her incision healed strong and clean, we imagined the bone grafts in her spine becoming impervious and inviolate, merging with existing bone although in fact, the grafts take several years to become fully patent.
A trip to X ray to check placement of the rods resulted in a meeting with a radiographer who introduced himself to her by saying “I saw your beating heart”- her thoracotomy and coloplasty had left her laying opened up and exposed on the table while the radiographer was brought in as part of the team responsible for her spinal cord monitoring and preparation for placement of those rods. She was unfazed and deeply proud of the fact that two of her ribs now lay in the bone bank to help others. She was intrigued by what had gone on during her surgery. “What did you both do Mum while I was under?” Endless Scrabble games kept us sane plus a flat in the hospital’s staff accommodation. Buckets of ice-cream, walks, sleeping, time as a family, cooking in the flat’s kitchen with other residents. We turned inwards and forgot about everything else. It was shocking to us to see the reactions of other relatives to her. Seeing the distress on their faces at my daughters temporarily bloated swollen face (oedema from being face down for hours on end) pulled us out of our self protective bubble. We found it easier to cope by not being told how well we were coping.
How can I explain how I felt upon my return to the ward after a walk, to see a straight-backed girl in pale yellow t-shirt sitting, her back to me, on the edge of her hospital bed, being supported by two physiotherapists? I had grown so accustomed to the brutal curve of her spine that it had become an identifying feature. Lazily, it had become easy to use that. It was gone and what replaced it was a success beyond the hopes of her surgeon and his team. The remaining curve was imperceptible to the naked eye and the twist to her rib cage was now hidden by clothing. She stood up carefully and briefly, crying from pain and my other marker of time passing had changed: she was four inches taller- although as the weeks went by this settled to three. We had plaited her hair before the operation and she had been kept so still that the plait remained, tidy and neat, following the livid scar that traced the now straight line of her spine from nape of neck to her butt.
“After six months following follow up in clinic, the patient can gradually recommence activities, including different functions, building them up to one year following the surgery.”
Her surgery was one week after the end of her GCSE’s. She missed out on the celebrations, she did not collect her results from the school. She missed out on the start of her drama course and returned some months after, guarded by a literal circle of friends surrounding her, as she walked slowly and carefully through the crowds of students. Health and Safety assessments guarded her in a more formal manner. A quiet space made available for her to lie flat, a plan for what to do if the fire alarm went off- she couldn’t walk fast and must not be jostled- a modification of drama classes, an awareness that her rods restricted her from bending fully. My daughter is flexible in spirit and mind, her body lags behind.
We live in image-heavy times and the messages we are given about what is beautiful and what is perfect are twisted and skewed. My daughters spine and ribs became master and servant for a while of this. At times it ruled her growth as a young woman and caged her with pain and embarrassment. She worried about it skewing her in the eyes of others although she has met men who have loved her for who she is and admire her courage and dignity in coping. Now, ten years on, she has her scars, the beautiful and striking faded line all the way south and the two ‘tiger slashes’ across the side of her torso. She has answered enquiries about these scars by joking that she was mauled by a tiger. A few people find that more believable than the truth.
My daughter has Kypho-Scoliosis and her treatment was specific to her needs and condition and may not apply to other cases, If you have any concerns about Scoliosis please see your GP or contact a relevant support group or source of information.
The leap from a healthy glow to a perspiring crimson mess is not so huge during summer, no matter what your skin type or colour is. Going from air con to full sun, from sun baked car to the blast of the chiller section in the supermarket plays havoc upon our equilibrium, our disposition and our complexion and trying to maintain some semblance of grooming requires the cosmetic big guns. Keeping it as simple as possible is THE mantra when it is hot and I try to maintain an inverse relationship with what is going on in my life- the busier it is, the more I scale back my hair and beauty regime. Indeed I try to streamline by using products that double or triple up and avoid the use of skin covering bases and creams which tend to melt, crease and generally look pretty ropey after a few hours. I cannot claim to be a Dermatologist nor do I possess any special knowledge of products for problem skins; only the problems I have had with my skin, so if you have regular break outs, Rosacea or other specific skin needs it is worth looking online for tailored help and information about products and the best ways to apply them. I’d love to hear your recommendations though and here, then, are my beauty superheroines- the products that always save the day.
I don’t waft around the White Isle (Ibiza) in a straw hat, a Maillot and a pair of kick ass shoes all summer but that vibe suffuses Charlotte Tilbury’s products. Brought up in Ibiza and in full possession of a certain Balearic spirit, Charlotte works the most unlikely of colouring- pale skin and red hair- in the heat, making this world famous make up artist an authority on faking a sun kissed look when you don’t really tan. Her website is packed with two minute tutorials on how to get her looks with her products (or others) and my favourite is the Beachstick in ‘Formentera‘, a sunkissed berry shade (in Charlotte’s words) bringing a slick of semi translucent colour to lips, cheeks and anywhere you want highlighted. The texture lets your natural skin tones show through so it actually looks natural albeit a kind of ‘looking your absolute best’ natural. The ‘Ibiza’ shade is a burnished bronze, inspired by her famous breakthrough Castaway Kate shoot by Mert & Marcus for British Vogue which is now cited by make up schools everywhere as THE uber beach look.
I don’t do bronze or brown tones shades- being incredibly fair skinned I just look muddy although if I had darker skin tones this is the shade I would choose- it would look glowingly spectacular. They have a little bit of glimmer but not so much as to send you back in time to an inner Halston draped seventies disco chick at Studio 54, riding a white stallion a la Bianca Jagger, who, with her Nicaraguan skin tones, would most certainly suit it.
Hei Poa Pure Tahiti Monoï Oil Tiara is my gift to you, coming in at a rock bottom price of around £6:50 on Amazon; even more of a bargain when I tell you that my 100ml bottle has lasted me two years (I keep it in a cool dark place). Going solid in cold weather and liquifying in the warm, this is not the swiftest product to use being very oily and slow to absorb and so definitely not one for the slap it on and get dressed brigade. For Gods sake, whatever you do, keep it away from silk, viscose, white clothing and other very porous thin fabrics. If you can cope with all that then this oil is manna from heaven for dry skins, sun battered skins, annointing you in a manner that suggests you’ve been cavorting in a Tahitian flower bed. Use it as a hair pack (will need two lathers to get it out), slick it onto hair before sunbathing, use as a body oil after a bath (wear an old terrycloth dressing gown afterwards) or as a highlighter on cheek and brow bones.
Red Fox’s Tub ‘O Butter, is a close relative of Bottle ‘O Butter which became scarcer than the Chinese White Leopards after India Knight eulogised it in her Sunday Times column. Even more prosaically packaged in its yellow plastic tub, which to me is actually quite cool, this is utilitarian chic and even more so because it doesn’t insult my (or your) intelligence with a load of pseudy cobblers about amino acids and peptides, reclaimed youth and invented derma-anatomy. I never believe any of that crap anyway and choose my products via word of mouth, the look, smell or feel or whether I will find them easy to work into my over complicated life. Tub ‘O Butter can be found online but for me, the glory of its discovery lay in finding it in a tiny local store in Bethnal Green which sold all manner of international hair and beauty products, most of them completely unknown to me. The excitement is ramped up when the instructions and descriptions of a product are in Arabic or Spanish or even in a language that I cannot recognise at all. These discoveries get double points and I exit the store feeling like some intrepid beauty explorer putting my derma life on the line.
So thick you need to scoop it from the tub (you’ll spend all day getting it from under your nails if they are long) and smelling blowsily of cocoa butter, dry skin will suck this up like sump oil leaving you a glowing (a little greasily at first) and soft, soft, soft. I have used it to heal scars, windsear, burns, grazes and gnarly feet and it is supposed to help combat the ashy look that black skins can sometimes develop. I have even used it to soften a pair of leather shoes adopting a similar principle to Liberaces skin regime- tan fiercely, slather with unguents. Oh and it only costs a few quid.
The polar opposite to Tub ‘O Butter in packaging, Klorane Cornflower Eye Makeup Remover with its dark blue bottle, delicately etched flowers and Ph level identical to that of tears is a brand that is frequently used by teenagers on mainland Europe but remains bewilderingly under appreciated in the UK. In this gently scented make up remover, Centaurea extract is obtained by distilling the dried flower heads, which contain a natural blue dye called cyanocentaureine known for soothing and decongesting. Many have found this is the least bothersome eye makeup remover to use for eyes dried out and irritated by Hay Fever and pollution. Cheaper than Clarins Alpine Milk cleanser and indeed all of the Clarins range, for me, Klorane is very similar with its use of botanical extracts and simple pharmacie style packaging. I like to think that when they briefly discontinued it a while back, my ‘Are you nuts?’ email was the prod they needed to bring it back. For six quid you are getting a little star here: models like it too and they know what they are talking about when it comes to torturous eye make up routines and how best to avoid piling on yet more torture when it comes to removing it.
Blue Dog in Clare is one of our lovely little independent Suffolk stores and what makes it even more of a must visit in my opinion is that it stocks Steamcream, one of my top five liniments both in design and actual contents. Lightweight but moisturising and handmade in Poole, a shot of steam is used to fuse together the fresh and natural ingredients such as oatmeal, lavender, rose and orange flower oils, cocoa butter and organic jojoba. An ever changing lid design means Steamcream has developed a cult following, especially in Japan where the appetite for limited edition tins commemorating events such as cherry blossom season is never sated.
A story of love lies behind my own love of Geo F Trumpers Extract of West Indian limes cologne first introduced by the company in 1880 and to me in the early nineties when I first encountered it whilst living in London. Having moved away to London from Suffolk I was initially very lonely and after starting a new post in a local drugs and alcohol unit, I used to chat with the janitor after work as he spent fifteen minutes preening himself in the office bathroom before going to meet his lady love and watch him slosh this sharp little cologne over his beard and locks then carefully replace the gilt crown shaped stopper back onto the bottle. He would trail the scent all over the office as he pottered about, replacing his tools and checking every room before we both left.
This janitor was aged seventy nine and was determined to not only keep his job (fortunately being a charity, the rules were more flexible regarding retirement) but to marry his girlfriend who was a few years his elder. Reader he did and I attended the ceremony held at a pentecostal church in West London. As the groom walked past me in the chapel, bride on his side, he was followed by perfumed clouds of West Indian and Sicilian limes, the scent that his new wife admitted made her first notice and follow him down the road after he walked past her to find out what cologne he used. Her intentio? To buy a bottle for the man she was with at the time. He talked her out of him and into his arms. Charm + perfume, a world beating combination.
It may be marketed as a cologne for men but I use it every summer during the daytime in rotation with Lancome’s ‘O De Lancome’, an invigorating citrus and green based EDT – lemon, mandarin, and bergamot, the green notes of basil, rosemary and coriander underpinned by the base notes of oak moss, sandalwood, and vetiver. ‘O De Lancome’ is a scent that doesn’t last all day being an eau de toilette but is light, cooling and clean on hot sticky evenings, a deeper and more complex version of extract of West Indian limes for nights out.
Having drier skin means I am a bit of a skin oil addict and Goē Oil is another favourite with its bag friendly tube packaging and scent, a result of a combination of 28 plant, fruit and flower oils and butters. Lightly scented with Monoi from Tahiti (that old favourite again), it goes into the skin quickly and leaves it feeling incredibly smooth. Less is more—only a small amount is needed and your skin will feel the difference. The ‘science’ behind its brilliance lies in the use of heavy concentrations of jojoba oil which is not technically an oil, instead it is a polyunsaturated liquid wax which is similar to sebum. Sebum is secreted by the human sebaceous glands to lubricate and protect the skin and hair and so jojoba oil supplements this action or replaces it in sebum deficient skin. Not one for those of you with oily skin to be honest. Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse does a similarly great job in a more haute glam way; shimmery and glimmery, this is the oil to give you sheeny limbs and the slightly bronzed cheekbones of Helena Christansen circa 1985.
With its alluring scent and adaptability of use- face, body and hair, this is my choice for evenings, especially after a day in the sun when you want to accentuate your tan- add a stripe of oil down your shinbone or atop a cheekbone for emphasis. The oil comes in both clear and bronze tinted variants-the clear makes a great addition to a bath for super parched skin after you’ve subjected it to wind, sun, saltwater and chlorine. Not cheap but it does last- like most oils, a little goes a long way.
The warmer months often mean embarking upon the crop spraying and deforestation required to rid a girl of her winter pelt and if you believe the beauty press, one needs to spend a heck of a lot of cash in order to effectively remove ones unwanted body hair. I’m not going to go into the feminist argument for and against the retention or removal of leg, pubic and underarm hair here except to say that if you are still reading, I am going to assume that you have made the decision that the fur has to go. Or at least some of it. I am not an expert on permanent or semi permanent body hair removal techniques although I do highly rate threading for eyebrows- a technique that is easy to find the masters of in London, not so much in rural Suffolk. If anybody knows of a threader locally, please PLEASE do let me know.
I am old skool, so old skool I use a disposable Bic and shaving foams belonging to my husband and other some such. He uses Noxzema because I bought it for him after seeing another London based friend using it and adored its sinus clearing menthol smell. I got it so I could filch it, being an upfront kind of girl. (or just plain cheap) Thick, thick, Mr Whippy style foam in that classic menthol or a newer cocoa butter scent (not so much a fan) in a fat, short can with trad-cool barber shop graphics, I feel all fifties when I see it in the bathroom. If Danny Zuko used shaving foam, Noxzema would be it.
I used to use whatever brush came with a product or even my fingers. I would use the wrong tools for the wrong job and what a surprise I got when I was given a set of these beauties and saw the difference proper application makes. Bdellium Tools Green Bambu Series brushes are professional eco-friendly makeup brushes with sustainable bamboo handles and all vegan soft synthetic bristles. Bamboo is one of the most sustainableand renewable resources and environmentally sound plants on Earth and due to its rapid re-growth cycle, it can be harvest with virtually no impact on the environment. I can vouch for this because the bamboo plant in my garden is currently making a break for the border, triffid like, and seems to bow down to no man, his spade or weedkiller.
All very noble I am sure and yes, I do want to save the planet and all but most of all I love these make up brushes because (1) they are super cute with their stubby, grasp friendly handles and (2) they do their job really well. They come in green, yellow and pink and in all manner of shapes, sizes and kit permutations. I wash them out with Johnsons baby shampoo and soak them every week or so in a solution of Miltons to disinfect them.
As a British child of the sixties, I am emotionally attached to the Rosehip due to the old NHS policy of prescribing a free bottle of rosehip syrup to every child born in the country from the Second World War onwards. War time fruit and vegetable rationing led to a rise in the cases of Scurvy (caused by Vitamin C deficiency) and people were initially encouraged to make their own from hedgerow roses. As need escalated, the government stepped in and my generation of children was the last to receive this overly sweet, viscous reddish pink concoction, a spoon of which was proffered every morning at breakfast from babyhood onwards. The Sargasso Trading Company has taken the rosehip, a very overlooked botanical ingredient and added it to its new healing balm, augmenting it with Amazonian cupuacu butter, rose geranium, ravensara oil and that mango butter again to make a balm that tackled my Latitude festival damaged feet and made them whole again.
Spending two hours on my feet in a pelting thunderstorm in a muddy field watching Daman Albarn, followed by a slippery walk back to our tent illuminated only by biblically epic lightning, wearing strapped leather sandals which chafed and abraded my feet led to a seriously infected blister and awful sores over my toes. I don’t want to think about what nasties lay waiting for me in that fetid mud. Once the infection had abated, I bought in the heavy guns, slathering my poor (now hideously unattractive trotters) in the balm. The heroic Rosehip has saved the day and the expected scarring has been averted and I am going to trial it on my daughter next. Being a Patissiere, she is constantly faced with a spitting and malevolent cauldron of sugar syrup which rises up and bites her. If this balm can sort out her burns, then the Sargasso Trading Company have a better version of Creme De La Mer on their hands, which itself was originally developed for post surgical patients and burns.
The downside? It may be made of lovely ingredients but the smell isn’t brilliant. Don’t put loads on if you are going out in polite company because as your skin warms, the ‘scent’ becomes even more pungent rendering it a product for those days when you are confined to the house. You may wonder, ‘Is it worth it when I can find products with a better scent doing pretty much the same thing?’. All I can say is that Eight Hour Cream, in my opinion, smells vile yet millions of tubes have been sold. Sometimes you have to live with the less fragrant in order to get the goods. And this works.
I am perpetually in search of the worlds best eyeliner, being a wearer of contact lenses and sometimes wearer of glasses too. The former renders my eye make up prone to smudging and smearing and the latter renders it all but invisible anyway unless I lay it on thicker. Which I don’t really want to do being no fan of the Houri look at midday. Finding an eyeliner that makes upper lash lining easy in a rush has been a life’s work that compares time wise with the search for the elusive Higgs Boson and they will probably find it first. However the Clarins Three Dot Eyeliner is the nearest I have come to it although it looks like a tiny raccoons paw emerging from a tube and not something you instinctively want to wave around near your eyes.
The clever triple point sponge applicator helps you deliver precise lines and intense colour with ease. The space between each lash can be filled in ‘dot by dot’ to naturally accentuate the eyes and add volume to the lashes . This is handy for klutzes like me who can never drawn that perfect unwavering line and removes the chance that over correction leaves me looking like Liz Taylor, all tired and emotional during her Cleopatra years. If you prefer to use a pencil, Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil is great, since it’s soft so it goes on easily and smoothly, comes in a bunch of non-boring shades, and lasts if not forever, then a goodly amount of the day. For something a little more portable, Hourglass Precision Liquid Liner comes loaded in a pen and has a slightly shorter brush than many, which makes for a less dramatic, more daywear-appropriate line and better control over application.
I need lip balm more in the summer than I do in the winter and unless I am some kind of unique beauty freak, I imagine some of you do too. Where I do start to become a little freaky is in my love for this pretty prosaic item of personal maintenance and my specialist Mastermind subject could well be this.
I collect them (basically) and the launch of a new brand like Maybelline’s Babylips is a cause for great happiness in my make up bag. I go high and kitsch low when it comes to lip moisturising- I am no snob but I do love a bit of Clinique and the Clinique Black Honey Almost Lipstick is a favourite lippie shade that now comes as a light glossy balm. Those people who prefer pink can always grab a tin of Smith’s Rosebud Salve with its Victorian apothecary packaging or go utility-medical chic and keep a pot of Carmex handy (How much do I love Carmex?). This is my everyday go to because it multi tasks, works for blisters and other abrasions when you have nothing tailor made to hand. The happiest moment of my holidays in the USA besides discovering the cool and tiny tins of Aspirin (Excedrin) on sale there is seeing stacks of Carmex and Blistex in Walgreens and Walmart and Target- loads of different scents and colours, in tubes and pots, none stocked here. Finally the sweetly sheepy (but not in scent, only in packaging design) Lanolips is worth buying if you don’t mind spending a few extra pounds on lip balm. I love this stuff and the banana flavour is addictive and comes in a pale primrose coloured tube that is really really pretty.
One for baby now (and therefore also for you) on these stuffy and therefore hard to settle summer evenings. Milk Baby Nighty Night Room Spray relaxes and calms your baby, preparing them for the perfect slumber- I hope. With just a few sprays, the lavender, chamomile and sandalwood oils based formulation can help work magic on baby and therefore you too. If it doesn’t, just put the baby in another room or send it to its grandparents until it sleeps through or is eighteen or something (joking).
Available online and selected high st stores, we have used this spray in our sitting room at night after a stressful day (trying to postpone the moment when the alcohol comes into play) and a friend who found breastfeeding difficult found that using it before a feed helped calm and centre her, allowing her milk to let down. Every little helps!
I’m a long time superfan of a silk pillowcase for less bedhead, less wrinkles and a cooler, deeper sleep on hot nights. Silk is naturally hypoallergenic, allowing a healthier night’s sleep for you and your skin, and this pillowcase is made from top quality 22 momme colourfast 100% pure silk Charmeuse, made by hand, stitched with French seams which lie flat. They are super luxe and yes, they cost a bit more than JL cotton but make a wonderful gift for a mother to be instead of baby clothes that baby will son grow out of. All profits from this Silky Kisses pillowcase go to the Fistula Foundation charity for mothers in developing countries who have experienced injury during childbirth. Multitasking at its best- help others whilst you slumber!
The last time I visited Sardinia, not only did I discover Fiore Sardo cheese, Maloreddus pasta and Bottarga, I also bought shed loads of this fragrant and gentle rosewater tonic- “Acqua alle Rose”. Created in 1867 by the Roberts herbalists, pure Centiflora rose petal are distilled in spring water with no drying alcohol or artificial colours. Perfect dabbed on hot dry skin, used on babies and children and as ironing water or linen mist. Or do the Cleopatra bathing in rose petals thing and add a capful to bathwater. Widely available online and at independent chemists.
Think of all the classic summer foods- watermelon, tomato, grapes, strawberries, cucumber and what they all have in common is a high water content. Adopting this principle with beauty products, we end up with scents that scream summer whilst keeping us fresh and unencumbered with heavy, stultifying scents that are better suited to night times rather than the light and bright of day. The Yes To Cucumbers line uses organic cucumbers, anti-inflammatory green tea extract and lush moisturising ingredients like aloe vera and rejuvenating vitamins that help cool and soothe the skin. Most loved by us is the shower gel but the eye gels, creams and moisturisers are super refreshing too. Boots do a less expensive version (which was first) and it is just as good. I have a tube of the cucumber facial wash gel by the sink at all times and it is the single best way to wake up a tired face. If you want to continue the allotment theme, the Yes to Carrots and Yes to Tomato ranges are perfect- tomato leaves have such a distinctive sharp scent (think of a greenhouse full of them after you have watered it) that we love but we also know it can be a bit marmite with people hating it equally passionately. Plenty of local stores stock these ranges and I buy mine from Holland & Barrett in Bury St Edmunds.
My obsession with stationery as a kid continues to be expressed in the ownership of cases full of pens to draw all over my face and body with. But I still love notebooks and writing pens and those cute little scented erasers that sit atop your pencil (tThe ones I loved at school were in the shape of fruits-biliously coloured with manic grins and sticking out little skinny arms I used to bite off.). I was weird. Now, my pencils and pens are a <ahem> tad more expensive with names like Chanel and Dior and Shu Uemura BUT they are still delicious of scent and bright in colour. Sometimes though I feel the need to be all swish and grown up and the glam Dior nail polish pen (Dior Instant French Manicure Pen) is made for people like me whose yearning for the accoutrements of childhood is matched by their inability to paint tidy, ‘between the lines’ nail polish onto their nails. I have zero dexterity so the pointed felt tip makes delicately manicured nails pretty foolproof to achieve. And the pale pink shade is fashion show quality; by this I mean beaucoup de pigment and a Mercedes pain spray level of depth. Not cheap but keep it in the fridge and it’ll last. Way to go- a French Manicure that looks pro.
A bright lip in the summer is the thing isn’t it? No matter how little you tan, or how dark your skin is there is always THE colour for you if you are prepared to get down and busy in the cosmetics department and try them all out- and most counters stock cotton balls and make up remover so you can use those samples hygienically and avoid walking out with hands striped with lipstick tests. For darker skins brilliant fuschia looks amazing, making teeth and the whites of the eye look brighter. Stila Color Balm Lipstick in ‘Betsey’ is a favourite as is IMAN moisturising lipstick in ‘Mod‘. Both have some glossiness, moisturise (important in the summer where the air is drier) and have staying power- they are beach friendly.
Revlon Colourburst Balm Stain is one of those super chunky pencils that I am obsessed with; similar to the super successful Clinique Chubbysticks (which we also recommend), both so super cute they should be family pets really. ‘Honey‘ is a heathery, light pink/brown, especially suitable for light skins whilst those wanting more drama should go for the orange/red ‘Rendezvous‘. Easy to draw on, non draggy on delicate lip skin and they moisturise too.
Although I adore my monthly subscribers copy of US Vogue (even if Anna Wintour has been dialling it in lately), it really bugs me when I see a new beauty product that has yet to hit the shores over here- more so when it is an inexpensive buy. Paying shipping for cheaper products somehow hurts more. Neutrogena is the latest culprit and at time of writing (Aug 2014) I have yet to find this versatile little beauty on sale here- do tell me different if you know where to get it.
SPF 20 in ‘Healthy Blush’ is a flat wide stick balm in a range of subtle colours and this flushed pink shade makes your face look so healthy and bright, who needs the sun? Or healthy lifestyle choices? Just fake it and suffer those shipping charges until the beauty goddesses in their infinite wisdom, make it available here.
Neutrogena is a bit of a go to brand in my house to be honest, especially after reading that one of my all time favourite models, Helena Christansen uses ‘Rainbath’, a curiously scented bath gel (curious in a good way with its spices, herbs and flowers). Now when you recall that Michael Hutchence once said that La Christansen’s skin was ‘like a percale sheet, satiny, stretched very tight with no imperfections’, it is a perfectly reasonable assumption that emulating her body washing regime might help in the attainment of a sheet like epidermis. Not the most romantic of swain-like declarations about his loved one to fall from the lips of a celeb but ho hum, I’m sure she greatly appreciated it. Rainbath is sold online and I have also seen it in quite a few independent chemists- another great reason to support them.
If your baby has nappy rash, it seems counter productive to load chemical filled products onto their skin in an attempt to cure it yet so many very well known products contain ingredients I am a bit hmm about. Burts Bees nappy rash cream has no phthalates, parabens, petrolatum, or SLS and its gentle almond oil and sunflower oil base allows it to glide on smoothly, avoiding dragging already sore skin. I am also a huge fan of their Marshmallow day cream in the sweetest packaging, soft and whippy in texture and not heavily loaded with scent. That’s a day cream for us, not our babies! Marshmallow Day Cream comes in a fifties style glass jar which makes it even lovelier in our opinion.
A bit pricey but Raw Gaia floral spray for babies and children is heavenly mist in a bottle. Made with organic and distilled floral waters, Roman chamomile, rose otto and lavender, I cannot claim any special effects other than relief from heat and prickly rash, a room made wonderful and the possible sleep inducing effects of both. And watching a baby laugh as the mist lands on them is hilarious in itself.
Hair is my bugbear- so much so that I resort to bad rhymes and cheap wine every time I catch sight of my unruly mop in the mirror. Funnily enough the best hair look I have ever had was after a dip in the sea and a blast of wind drying on a less sheltered Sardinian beach a few years back. Using the various commercial sea salt sprays doesn’t quite match that naturally acquired tousle and they seem a lot of money for what amounts to basically salt + water + chemicals to make the concoction cling to the hair shaft- especially if they don’t bloody work. The Guardian rates Toni & Guy Sea Salt texturising Spray but I don’t- if you have to leave it in overnight because you cannot wash it out, it leaves you with the textural equivalent of a coughed up hairball on top of your head. The Umberto Gianni one isn’t much better although the bottle design is cute.
Bumble & Bumble Surf Spray weighing in at over £20 is about the only one that comes near to the proper strand-y separated waves that I remember and loved. It keeps elasticity in the hair so you can get a comb through it the next day, or even later on, smells like sun cream covered skin on a hot day by the beach and lasts- you don’t need much. Spray into dry or towel dried hair, tustle through with fingers or wide toothed comb and shake out. If you go out in the wind or blast your hair with a fast dryer then you’ll get the full effect,
Keeping in with the hippy vibe, all us chicks who were born in the sixties and early seventies remember those suntan oil ads- Bergasol with the one pale and one uber tanned woman- single perfect plait dangling along their spines, sitting by the pool side. How times change hey? Nowadays only a light tan is desired; sun protection whatever your skin colour being the thing, and there is a widespread awareness that even the most pigmented of skins is still vulnerable to all kinds of sun related damage if not looked after.
Aged sixteen and on a four week holiday to Korea and Hong Kong I decided to ape the locals and annoint myself in the carrot oil, advertised and sold everywhere- a dark orange sticky concoction probably better suited to well tanned Korean skins, although I cannot imagine it being safe or hydrating for anybody to be honest. I mean, look at the skin of a carrot- hardly baby soft is it? I spent the rest of the holiday being treated for partial thickness burns, unable to feed myself because of the rawness of the skin on my chest rendering me unable to lift my arms (yup I sunbathed topless and nearly burned off my nipples). It took three months to heal, looked like a side of well fried bacon for some time and I am now a factor maximum girl. On that day I learned that cloud does not = no rays and that adverts sometimes lie.
My teenage brand of choice after this little episode was Hawaiian Tropic (and still is to be honest) because that smell of coconut, salty hot skin, tiare and other exotic flowers is super intoxicating and instantly transporting. So much so that I retain out of date sun creams for use as a general moisturiser. Oh that smell…. Anyway, they have a rather lovely after sun body butter (a term I hate- who wants to imagine butter all over their skin, slowly turning rancid?) out which is only five quid from supermarkets and chemists, has aloe and is even more effective if you keep it in the fridge. There is also an ‘exotic’ coconut one <swoon> too. I’ll take both.
BTW, make sure that your sun cream protects against both skin ageing UVA and the potential for triggering skin cancer UVB but remember we also need a few minutes of sunlight every day to make vitamin D and using sunblocks all the time will render you vulnerable to deficiencies in this. Be balanced. Continuing the smelling like the beach theme, I used to buy an amazing perfume by Aramis called New Skinscent West for Her which has been sadly discontinued. Imagine if you stuck a melon on top of a car, drove it around a tropical island in the sea breeze then distilled all of that into a bottle? Well, there you have it and a large part of my adulthood has been spent on a quest to find something similar. I found one a couple of years ago that omitted the melon bit but otherwise smelled gorgeous- Sweet Sun Dior with mandarin and middle notes of tiare flower and jasmine. The sun screen scent is from a base of vanilla, musk and ginger. They claim that the fragrance includes pro-endorphin which gives a natural feeling of pleasure. I think that last bit is a load of old cobblers personally. Any natural feelings of pleasure come from (1) smelling lovely and, (2) being reminded of holidays.
I have also been trying out a Jil Sander fragrance ‘Sun‘ which is not as easily available but is a little less obvious yet still stunningly summery in an oiled on the beach kind of way. A really cool design too with sans serif block lettering along the rectangular bottle. Estee Lauder have their ‘Bronze Goddess‘ hybrid of scent and body oil which has that salt skin + on shore breeze fragrance but a terrible name. Finally, a mix of Body Shop coconut, vanilla and a flower oil of your choice will produce very pleasing results. From a time when financially that was all I could afford to now when I can afford to spend a little more, it still pleases me to mix my own scents by spraying layers of them on and seeing what happens (people run screaming from the room?). Sometimes it can have unexpectedly good outcomes.
I love Daniel Galvin Jnr. Honeydew & Watermelon Hair Juice Shampoo, to continue the melon theme. Ostensibly for kids, this will gently cleanse hair and leave it smelling of honey and honeydew melon which is what one would expect: the clue is in the name. No more tears either. Not cost wise (Waitrose stock it) nor use wise. They often have price incentives on the whole range too so be sure to snap up the DG Kids Top to Toe 3 in 1 if you see that on offer too. I’m not necessarily a fan of products that smell like (1) pudding (no creme brulee hair for me), or (2) cheap fruit salad at a Holiday Inn buffet meal but those clean sharp scents like tomato, melon or cucumber and the warmer honey, vanilla and coconut smells are perfect for summer. Washing hair or body in tepid water on a hot day is super refreshing with this shampoo (it can be used for both) and kids tend to love it too.
I seem to have a bit of an obsession with facial sprays but this one is where it all started. Paul Mitchell hair products haven’t had such a high profile lately but in the nineties they advertised far more widely and were quite THE brand in London where I lived. The beauty of Awapuhi Moisture Mist is in its multi tasking. Made for hair and body it is divinely scented and impregnated with Sodium PCA (giving it a silky feel on the skin), spirulina and plankton extracts alongside that awapuhi, a tropical ginger plant widely distributed throughout Polynesia although originally from India. An uber plant to be honest – all of its parts have a use from the rhizome which is pounded to make remedies for toothache, indigestion and a poultice for sprains to the leaves and stalks which flavour pork and fish.
In Hawaii, the clear and sudsy juice present in the mature flower heads is excellent for softening and brings shine to the hair, used both as wash out and leave in conditioner. Locals pick or cut the flowers, squeeze the sweet juices onto hair and bodies and then swim, letting the mountain streams wash the residue off. Now if that does’t make you want to use this spray and the Awapuhi shampoos and conditioners in this range, you have no poetry or romance in your soul and I cannot help you. Look for Paul Mitchell in independent salons.