Instagram, fashion, body image and me

ice cream flake

Yesterday I ordered a bikini. Obviously I am aware that the current heatwave won’t last forever, and that the last few years of Cornish seaside holidays have been more likely to require welly boots and a fleece for beachwear so this really is a triumph of optimism, but nonetheless I have ordered it, and I can’t tell you what a big deal that is for me. You see, I am thirty-seven, and the last time I wore a bikini I was about 6 years old and in the paddling pool in our back garden. A couple of times I’ve ventured into tankini territory, but by and large I’m a one-piece girl all the way.

Why? Well, even in my early twenties, before two full-term pregnancies and two c-sections and two extra stone of weight, I was self-conscious about my tummy. It wasn’t flat, it wasn’t toned, it wasn’t tanned, I wasn’t a size 10 and therefore a bikini was out of bounds to me. It breaks my heart that I had so little self-confidence, that I had been so brainwashed by unrealistic expectations of what a woman’s body should look like, that I honestly believed that exposing a curved stomach to public gaze was offensive to others and embarrassing to me. And then this week I had a lightbulb moment. I was looking back and regretting that I didn’t appreciate that slimmer, younger, fitter self and why I didn’t enjoy wearing a bikini when I ‘could’, when I suddenly realised I was doing the same thing now. Yes, my tummy is very far from flat or toned, I am a size 14 mother-of-two with scars and stretch marks galore, but doesn’t my poor beleaguered tummy deserve a bit of sunshine? It’s carried my two amazing daughters, and the precious babies I never got to meet, it’s been sliced open to deliver them, and it’s been poked and prodded within an inch of its life through pregnancy, miscarriage, delivery and all the rest of it, and I’m going to stop being ashamed of it. Or try, at least.

Where has all this body confidence come from? In a word, Instagram? It’s funny,  because social media in general, and Instagram in particular, come under a lot of criticism for making people miserable through their unrealistic portrayal of perfect lives, but nothing could be further from my experience. It was mainstream media, particularly women’s magazines, which fed my neuroses and insecurity. Headlines of ‘get bikini body ready’ which were inevitably attached to an article which advised giving up pretty much everything I enjoy made me feel miserable and inadequate, whereas now I am exposed to quotes like “How do you get a bikini body? Choose a bikini and put it on your body” or “How do you get beach body ready? Have a body and go to the beach” and this drip feed of body positivity is slowly but surely having an effect.

It’s not just the bikini thing, either. It’s fashion in general. I’ve blogged before about how I lost my fashion mojo in the throes of being pregnant or breastfeeding or running around after small messy children and never getting a chance to go shopping. How ‘fashion’ meant seizing an hour when somehow the children were either asleep in their buggy or temporarily being cared for elsewhere, diving into the nearest shop, grabbing an armful of clothes in an approximation of my size, and going home. Sometimes they fitted and looked nice…to be honest, more often they didn’t. But the chasm between my life being splattered with carrot puree or poster paint whilst crawling round the floor pretending to be a donkey, and the images portrayed in fashion mags was so great that it didn’t seem worth even aspiring to. I was a thirty-something mum, and my time for fashionable dressing had passed.

Now, though, I get my fashion inspiration from an array of fabulous and very real women I follow on Instagram. People like Alison Perry (@iamalisonperry), Clemmie Hooper (@motherofdaughters), Molly Forbes (@mollyjforbes), Helen Thorn (@helenwearsasize18),  and Candice Brathwaite (@candicebrathwaite) post a lot about body confidence and body positivity (amongst other things!), and also just about the clothes they like and look incredible in. Many of the women who inspire me on Instagram have young children to crawl round after, a lot of them have bodies that differ from a fashion model size 8, a lot of them have a limited budget and/or time for shopping, but they look amazing. One by one I have been galvanised to drop self-imposed rules on the inadvisability of wearing things like bright colours, prints, skinny jeans, red lipstick, slogan t-shirts, or dungarees and have embraced the lot. I’ve discovered non high street brands like MonkiMonki, Joanie Clothing, and of course a passion for charity shops, following my buy nothing new year.

I’ve stopped telling myself I’ll buy things when I’ve lost weight, or that I’m too old for certain looks. I’ve stopped worrying about what the size label says – if it fits well, and feels comfortable and looks good then it doesn’t matter, and I’ve started buying bikinis. Whether I actually start wearing it, well, that depends on the vagaries of the Cornish weather.

 

 

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#In Real Life

cocktails

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark for me as I met a woman I have been friends with for nearly five years for the very first time. Chiswick Mum blogs about her family life in leafy West London. Other than our East/West divide, we have loads in common – both born and raised Oop North, proud of those roots, but in love with our London lives, both Oxford English graduates, both passionate about reading and writing and books and making the most of the little moments of everyday life by blogging about them. Her son is only a little older than Anna, and so we are often at the same lifestyle stage with children as well. She also writes beautifully, and is one of a very few bloggers guaranteed to give me a little lift when a link to a new post appears in my emails.

Our friendship grew organically, if ‘organically’ is the right word for something which is purely a product of the digital age. Firstly commenting on each other’s posts, then following each other on Twitter and Instagram, and then eventually sharing email addresses. The honesty of her writing meant that I felt I knew Chiswick Mum better than many of the mums I see at the school gates every day, but with whom conversation doesn’t really progress beyond the weather or this week’s spelling list.

A New Year’s Resolution we both felt we could get behind was to meet up IRL (In Real Life).  Not easy when you’re juggling between you three children, a full-time job, two blogs and live on opposite sides of London, but last night we managed it, meeting for cocktails in a bar in Central London. It was bizarrely like a blind date. Or how I imagine a blind date must be; husband and I have been together since we were eighteen, so the dating world is a bit of a closed book to me.

I felt incredibly nervous. Would she actually recognise me from my profile picture? After all, that was taken about four years, 1.5 stone, 1 baby and a whole pile of stress ago, and real life sadly lacks soft focus filters.Would we really have anything in common? Would it be horrendously awkward? Would she actually like me?

I’m so glad we were both brave enough to take the plunge, because we had a brilliant evening, and she was every bit the warm, funny, interesting and engaging woman her blog led me to believe she would be. We got through three drinks each and a platter of bar snacks (got to love a girl who loves pork crackling) with no awkward silences, and the only reason we quit at three drinks was because we both had to be up at about 6am, her for work, me for Mummy Duties.We have, however, planned to meet up with children and partners for a picnic this summer, and another round of drinks whenever our respective commitments allow. Amongst other things she even helped me come up with a plot and title for my fourth novel!

Blogging and social media gets a lot of bad press at the moment. I read many articles implying that if you love Instagram/blogging/Twitter/Facebook then you must be disengaged from ‘real life’. Like many things, I’m sure you need to be careful to maintain a balance. A virtual hug will never replace a real one, and I know that I can be guilty at times of posting about how adorable/annoying my children are rather than actually playing with them! However, I do think that the wonderful world of blogging and social media enhances my life, and yesterday I made a brand new real life friend I would almost certainly never have met any other way. ‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, and so many more connections are made possible for me by my life online, and my real life is the richer for it.

Nothing new

I recently read a blog post by a mum of two toddler girls who has decided not to buy anything new for them, or herself, during 2017. It has got me thinking about challenging myself to do the same thing.

I definitely buy too much, for all of us. Whether it’s popping a cute t-shirt in the trolley as I do the Sainsbury’s shop, or racing straight for my laptop the moment a Boden 30% off voucher pops through the letterbox, or being intrigued by a beautiful outfit by a retailer I’d never come across posted on Instagram and tracking it down, I do love a bit of retail therapy. But. It’s not a great habit to have got into for lots of reasons. Obviously the financial cost is a big one, and now my husband is running his own business we have to live a little (lot) more thriftily. And then there’s the cost to the environment of old things ending up in landfill long before their useful lifespan is passed, and the production of new things consuming fossil fuels and leading to masses of wasted packaging. I also feel there’s an emotional cost; there is an immediate satisfaction in a new pretty dress for me or, more likely, for one of my girls, but it doesn’t always last very long and it can all too easily be replaced by a sense of guilt at my spoilt spendthrift ways. In fact I often find hunting down a bargain on Ebay or my beloved Walthamstow Sell or Swap gives me a feeling of satisfaction which is far deeper and longer lasting.

The idea of abandoning all this consumerism for a year, and getting what we need on Sell or Swap, eBay, from charity shops or as hand-me-downs is very appealing. There would, of course, be exceptions.

Underwear for example. For almost three years now I have been living in maternity/breastfeeding lingerie. Comfortable and appropriate it might be, pretty and sexy it certainly isn’t. As soon as Sophia has stopped breastfeeding I have been promising myself a trip to Debenhams to restock my underwear drawer, and I’m not giving up that for anyone. Neither is there any way my daughters will be wearing second-hand knickers.

Footwear for the children would be another exception. I’ve always been a big believer in having their feet measured regularly and properly, and buying good quality leather shoes. I really think it makes a difference when they have such soft little bones, and I don’t want to store up podiatry problems for them in years to come. Don’t get me wrong, there’s the odd pair of hardly-worn canvas pumps of Anna’s which will be passed on to Sophia, and I’ve got nothing against second-hand wellies or party shoes, but I think that the shoes they wear most of the time should be properly fitted to their feet rather than pre-moulded to the shape of another child’s.

I would also be gracious enough to accept presents of new things, as I think it is a bit much to try and dictate to other people if they have been generous enough to think of getting you or your children a gift. (Hello, Mum. *waves*)

And obviously food. I live in London. I do not have a big garden or green fingers. The limit to my kitchen garden activities is a pot of supermarket basil on the kitchen windowsill (and that’s looking a bit brown and crispy at present), and it is a far bigger leap of imagination than I can possibly make to see me feeding a family of four for a year on what I manage to forage from Epping Forest!

With so many exceptions it really does seem do-able. It would force me to ‘shop my wardrobe’ and discover clothes and combinations I don’t wear enough, or make repairs to things I love but don’t wear because of small tears or missing buttons. It would hopefully prevent the children, especially Anna as she is old enough to be more aware, getting spoilt and thinking that nice things grow on trees or that you need new stuff to be happy. It would cut our spending and our environmental footprint, and maybe serve as a reminder that the best things in life really are free. So really the only question is whether I am strong enough to change my spending habits.

What do you think? Could you say no to new for a whole year? Do you think I should? And what are the rules on frenetic spending in the Boxing Day sales?!

A & S Merton

Coming of Age

Picture 152

Yesterday was my thirty-fifth birthday. I have always joked that I have been naturally 35 since I was about 17, so it’s quite nice that my biological age has caught up with my psychological one. My mum described me as now being “old young as opposed to young young”, and I can live with that.

I was absolutely useless as being young young. I hate late nights and night clubs and loud music. I’m not particularly keen on film or TV, so I never quite know who the latest celebrity is – or not until they’re interviewed in the Guardian Weekend magazine, anyway.   My alcoholic drinks of choice are G&T, prosecco or half-decent wine. Even in my student days I never drank so much that I threw up or passed out, and since having children my dread of having a hangover is so pathological that I stop at half a bottle (of wine rather than gin) unless I have childcare lined up for the next day as well.

I like being at home and making a home. I like baking and cooking. I like having friends round for dinner. I like lighting a candle and setting the table properly and cooking a delicious meal to share with my husband while we talk about life, love and everything (‘everything’ could be Anna’s spelling test, whether the filter on the dishwasher needs emptying or geopolitics). I like snuggling under a blanket on the sofa with a good book, or cuddling up with a DVD and a takeaway. I like romantic dinners or family brunches at local restaurants. I like early nights and warm pyjamas and cashmere cardies. I like meeting friends for lunch or coffee or drinks in places where we can actually hear ourselves think and have proper conversations. I like notebooks and pens and Cath Kidston floral prints, and think Great British Bake-Off is practically the best television ever. I was definitely doing hygge before it became an Instagram watchword.

I realise that quite a lot of that makes me sound 75 rather than 35, but there are a few things which hopefully make me ‘old young’ rather than young old.

I also like travel and adventure. Maybe not that adventurous by some standards, but I love home swap holidays which give us a little window into another culture, and travelling across Europe by train, even (especially!) with two young children in tow. I like fish finger sandwiches and nachos eaten messily with my fingers while I read. I like being out and about in London Town, exploring as many different areas and trying as many different foods as I can. I like shopping for and wearing new clothes. I like my Mac Book Air and my blog and other people’s blogs and Instagram, and I think that Sherlock is absolutely and indisputably the best television ever.

I like this stage of my life. I like being established, in my home and in my relationship, but still having the potential to travel or explore different career options. I love having young children and generally revel in the sweet responsibility of being so needed and loved, whilst also having a tiny part of me looking forward to the greater freedom I will have again when the children grow older.

One of my personal challenges for this year is to relish the moment. That was very easy yesterday, because the moments included champagne, chocolate cake, prawn and chilli linguine, presents and cards. But today is a better test. Today I have a clingy teething baby, a head cold that has stolen my sense of smell, a mountain of dirty laundry, a 6 year old with conjunctivitis and torrential rain being lashed against the windows by the 50mph winds, but I still feel pretty content. One of the things which gets in the way of me appreciating the moment is a superstitious dread of tempting fate. I can’t shake that completely, but while I cross my fingers, touch wood, look out for black cats while avoiding ladders and single magpies I will risk saying that thirty-five feels pretty good.

 

Ninth Day of Advent: Social Media

“Only connect” said E.M.Forster, and the connections which are made possible by social media are something that make me very happy. This is not a fashionable point of view. There are several prevalent attitudes to social media. One is that it actually makes people unhappy, because they are constantly comparing themselves to others, and Facebook, Instagram et al put an unrealistic gloss on the mundanities of life. Another is that the ‘traditional’ social media, like Facebook which I love, are now totally over, and the world has moved on to heaven knows what. I don’t know, and probably won’t until my daughters are teenagers and can patronisingly explain it all to me. Others worry that social media stops us connecting in real life, and that we are having relationships with our laptops and smart phones rather than our family and friends.

There is probably some truth in all of these, but I don’t let it worry me. As a stay-at-home mum and writer – both fairly solitary jobs – social media is a total godsend to me. This blog lets me get things off my chest with a good old rant, and records day-to-day moments for me to look back on. A paper diary could also do this, of course, but I love the sense of connection which I get from sending my thoughts out into the blogosphere, the lovely comments and feedback I get in response to my posts, and the ways in which my life is enhanced by other people’s blogs. Chiswick Mum has become a blogger friend, and I look forward to her beautifully written and photographed posts about her West London life and adventures with her young son just as much as I might look forward to coffee with a Real Life friend. Mostly Yummy Mummy  is a full-time mum-of-four in Yorkshire, and she’s like my online life coach for beauty tips and fashion inspiration. Local (to me) mum and blogger Katie is a fantastic source of brilliant recipes to tempt my occasionally fussy big girl, and, hopefully, to instil a love of good food in my little one. Holly Bell’s blog is also fab for this, and I love her chatty and breezy writing style. Through blog posts I’ve been privileged to gain a small insight into how it feels to parent a child with special needs, live with cancer, move your family onto a narrowboat, emigrate to Australia or cope with infertility. I feel that access to the blogosphere widens my world and horizons just as much as traditional media, and I am certainly no more likely to be distracted from my real life and long-suffering children than I would be reading the newspaper, and less likely than when I’m in the middle of a good book!

On days when, as this Monday just gone, things are feeling a bit of an uphill struggle, Facebook gives me a chance to moan and offload, and get some realtime feedback which makes me feel I’m not totally alone with my grumpy teething baby, attention-span-challenged 6 year old and the sticky bits of 500 paper chains, which are not on the paper chains or in the packet, but stuck to me, the children, the cat and every surface as far as the eye can see. I also like the little uplift I get when I see someone I was at school with has had a baby, or announced their pregnancy, or got a new job or met a new bloke. Yes, I know people put a positive spin on things, and I can see why if, for example, you had just had a miscarriage someone announcing their pregnancy would hurt you. But then it probably would in real life too. Even on bad days, I generally feel that someone else’s good news will cheer me up as I can be happy for them even while feeling sorry for myself.

Social media has practical benefits too. What do a set of Miffy books, some doll’s house furniture, a vintage sideboard, an apple slicer and a wicker Ikea children’s chair and some Joules wells have in common? They’re all things which I have got either for free, a couple of quid or a packet of biscuits on Walthamstow Sell or Swap Facebook group in the past few months. I’ve also made a couple of hundred pounds myself, selling baby gear Sophia has outgrown, or clothes I have (sob) outgrown. Brilliant bargains, less stuff going to landfill and the chance to make real, live connections with neighbours I wouldn’t have met otherwise. What’s not to love?Anna astronaut

A panicked Facebook plea when Anna announced she needed an astronaut’s costume for school led to my next-door neighbour coming round with the loan of the (amazingly creative) jet-pack he had made for his son’s space party a few months ago. Silvery grey leggings and tshirt, a pudding bowl, a roll of insulating tape, some foil and a bit of swearing and some pink moon boots I picked up on Sell or Swap, and Astronaut Anna was ready for take-off!