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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Nothing New in Review

I decided to make this a year when I would buy nothing new for me or my children or the house. There were some exceptions to this, but that was the gist of it. We’re nearly there now, so how has it gone?

The first thing to say, is that I am incredibly glad to have done this. It has made me think a lot more about consumerism and waste, and I think I will always shop more thoughtfully because of this year, with my go-to option being pre-loved rather than brand new.

In some ways I don’t think I’ve done too badly, but this final quarter has been the toughest, and I have had a few falls off the wagon which I should publicly fess up to. The first, back in the dog days of summer, was the Trainers of Delight. I’d seen these silver Air and Grace trainers popping up all over the place on my Instagram feed, and lusted after them, and then I got the email saying that they were in the sale. silver trainersI capitulated. Then I felt hugely guilty and immediately put them on our local Sell or Swap group. And then I realised I still did really, really want them, and I kept them. And I am very happy I did! Air and Grace specialise in footwear which looks amazing but also provides proper support to your feet. I suffer with plantar fasciitis, and I walk a lot, so comfortable footwear is massively important to me, but I also like to avoid the orthopaedic shoe look, even though my stiletto days may be behind me. These trainers are soo comfy, and I’ve had loads of compliments about them. They also go with pretty much everything. They were expensive, even in the sale, but worth every penny, and worth my fall from grace!

I did, however, manage to track down some barely worn Air and Grace ankle boots on eBay, so that was a nothing new victory for my feet!

My next fall was the back to school rush in September. It turned out that the 8 year old had had a growth spurt, almost entirely in her legs, and none of her tights or leggings fitted her. It’s obviously really hard to source good-quality secondhand children’s tights and leggings because the little darlings destroy them. And slightly frazzled by the end of the holidays and stressed out by the back to school rush, I didn’t try very hard, I just went to Next and bought what she needed. Again, to be honest, #sorrynotsorry.

She did, however, get a lovely cardi, two gorgeous preloved Mini Boden dresses and a ‘new’ winter coat in almost perfect condition, as well as a little sparkly cardi and some party shoes for the Christmas season, all via eBay, Sell or Swap, or lovely local preloved clothes shop Birch and Star.

The final slip-up is the one for which I don’t have even a spurious excuse to offer. I had been hankering after a red winter coat to cheer up winter mornings, and make me feel a little bit glamorous even when all I’m doing is two school-runs and a Sainsbury’s shop, and I hadn’t found anything in all my charity shop trawling. Then, a month ago, I met up with one of my besties for a child-free day out in Cambridge. We had a lunch which may, or may not, have involved cocktails and wine, and then we went mooching round Primark later. The result was probably a foregone conclusion. I found the  red coat of dreams. red coatUnfortunately for me, it was only in a size 8, or a size 20, neither of which I am. However, something about the make-do and mend spirit of nothing new year led me to try it on anyway. It actually worked really well over-sized, in my opinion anyway. And has the added advantage of lots of room for my layers of chunky winter jumpers underneath. I negotiated a massive discount (it was cheap anyway!) because there was a small hole in a seam, and I have since had that repaired for less than the cost of the discount. And then, when I realised that I was actually still missing a sensible, warm, waterproof coat with hood, I redeemed myself by getting a Gap one on Sell or Swap.

Christmas shopping has been an interesting one too. I can’t say too much here, because recipients of various gifts may be reading my blog (better bloody had be), but I have got a gorgeous Playmobil farm set for my nearly 3 year old on Sell or Swap. And I have tried to think more creatively about presents rather than just dashing to the shops. However, time constraints, and spending most of November stuck at home with poorly children, and the desire to get people what they actually really want, rather than what  my self-imposed constraints enable me to buy them secondhand, means that I have also bought quite a lot of stuff new. I have definitely been more thoughtful about this, though, however, and have tried to shop responsibly and support local businesses where possible.

I have spent a lot less money on clothes than any other year in recent memory, but I have acquired so many lovely things, for me and the children, and I find that I appreciate them much more than I would clothes which I just walked into a shop and bought at will. I have enjoyed the thrill of seeing something perfect pop up on my Facebook feed, and making a connection with someone in my community as I go to collect it. I also like the adrenaline thrill of an eBay auction for the perfect item I’ve set my heart on.

One of the knock-on effects of this year has been that I now throw nothing away. I still declutter, quite frequently, but everything is either sold, given away or donated to charity. This is quite time consuming,  (although sometimes lucrative too!) and there have been moments when I have just longed to chuck something away, but I am now very resistant to throw-away culture, and extremely conscious that one person’s rubbish is another’s treasured find.

I am aware that to dedicated frugallers and committed ethical shoppers, my year of nothing new, especially with these, umm, exceptions, is a fairly pathetic effort. However, shallow or not, I love clothes, and I love shopping, and I love following fashion accounts on Instagram, and frankly, I love the hit of a bit of retail therapy, so I am still quite proud of how well I’ve managed, and pleasurably surprised at how much I have enjoyed it.

I don’t know exactly how I will shop in 2018. I’m thinking along the lines of an ethical shopping policy – so mainly preloved, but with exceptions for treats from ethical brands like People Tree. And perhaps a ‘slip-up’ budget for occasional post-boozy lunch girly shopping trips??

 

 

 

How to be good?

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What does living your best life mean for you, and how do you go about it?

One of the blessings, or possibly curses, of approaching middle-age is that I am suddenly much more able to see both sides of an argument and to realise that things are rarely black and white. Nowhere does this trouble me more than in working out how I try and balance the competing demands to live my best life.

What does that mean for me? Well, I want to be family-focussed, trying to be the best mother, daughter, sister and wife that I can possibly be. I want to be a good friend, someone that my friends can have fun with, but also turn to for support when they need it. I want to take care of myself, both so that I can live as long and healthily as possible, but also because I am slowly working out that if I feel better about myself then I am better able to take care of other people. I want to be a successful writer – defining success as giving pleasure to other people through my writing, making a modest amount of money from it, and where appropriate using it to highlight causes I care about. I want to live frugally and with as light an environmental footprint as I can reasonably achieve. I want to live ethically, mindful of the effect that my choices and actions have on the lives of others, and trying to make that effect positive wherever I can.

So far, so good. As a set of vague aims it works. But they’re so contradictory. Food, for example. Do I buy the healthy avocados I love, or do I resist because of the air miles and over-farming issues? Ethics and health dictate that I should buy organic dairy – better for the farmers, better for the cows, and no nasty antibiotics and growth hormones, but when you get through as much milk, cheese and yoghurt as my kids do, then it really isn’t a frugal option. I can see a diet plan which promises fill me up with super-foods and micro-nutrients galore, increasing my energy levels and vitality, but many of the ingredients won’t be fair-trade and the air miles will be horrendous.

I can be sitting with my children while they have their tea, when I get a whatsapp message from a friend having a bad day and needing some support. Do I ignore my children while I reply, setting them the bad example of being a slave to social media, and the not-so-subliminal message that they are less important than this metal box, or do I ignore the message for a couple of hours until after their bedtime? By which time I should either be pursuing a healthy life by doing some exercise or cooking a nutritious meal, or having a relaxing bath, or being a caring wife by chatting to my husband about his stressful day.

Three mornings a week my children are at school/pre-school, and I have a 2.5 hour window to myself. Do I use it to do some exercise? Or to work on my writing? Or to clean and declutter our home to make it a nicer and calmer environment for all of us? Or to batch cook some healthy food so that I have more time to spend with my family in the evenings, but we all still get well fed? Or to walk to the budget supermarket 30 minutes away to stock up on a wide range of healthy food at frugal prices? Or to visit the local, independent butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, baker and cheese shop (all a 20-30 minute walk apart) to buy organic, fair-trade produce with generally lower food miles, but at budget-busting prices? Perhaps I should use the time to phone a friend I never get to catch up with, and have a proper, uninterrupted chat with her. Or have a coffee with a local friend. Or write to my local MP about one of the many political issues which trouble me at the moment.

I can get so over-whelmed by the decision making process that it is all to easy to end up slumped on the sofa, staring vacantly at my phone, my mind churning, and realise that 30 minutes have gone by without any productive activity at all.

Is this just me? How do other people find a balance between all the competing demands of ‘being good’? Am I over-thinking it? Am I missing an obvious solution, or do I have to decide on just a couple of priorities which are most important to me and focus on those? I am so interested to hear your views!

On the Jumble Trail

I have always loved shopping. As a child it was a real treat to go into town with my mum on a Saturday, just the two of us while my dad and brother did ‘boy’ things. She’d treat me to a fry-up in the C&A cafe (showing my age now), or delicious cakes in our favourite little cafe on a side street. My favourite shops then, aged about ten were good ol’ C&A and Tammy Girl.

Then when I was into my teens I’d still spend Saturdays hanging out in town with my girl friends. A Spicy Bean burger and a milkshake in Burger King, and longing looks at the clothes we couldn’t afford in TopShop, River Island and Miss Selfridge, before buying a new brightly coloured nail varnish and getting the bus home.

When I had my own pay check to spend and was working in Central London I could sneak out at lunchtime or after work to browse the shops and Oxford Street, and I had the money to treat myself sometimes. I will fit into that much-beloved size 10 leather pencil skirt again one day…

After having children, actually going to the shops could be less pleasurable. Tantrums and sticky fingers and cramped (or, heaven forbid, communal) changing rooms made it more chore than pleasure. Luckily for me I became a mum in the age of internet shopping. It’s a great way to pass the time when you’re pinioned to the sofa under a breastfeeding baby, and you can try the clothes on in the privacy of your own bedroom. Preferably by candlelight for that flattering glow. I also discovered some new favourite brands for my dress-like-a-mum style – hello Boden!

yellow dressFor me, though, there is no shopping experience more pleasurable than hunting down that elusive bargain. I’ve blogged before about my fabulous local Sell or Swap group, and how much I love combining local community with the chance to acquire some lovely new treats. Yesterday was one better than that with a local Jumble Trail. Around one hundred local people put a stall outside their house, selling off their unwanted goods, and the rest of us enjoyed the very British experience of a jumble sale in the pouring rain. I took the money I’d recently made on Sell or Swap to spend, and for the grand total of about £30 managed to get Anna a huge pile of books in the Rainbow Magic series which she is obsessed with at present, a beautiful turquoise gravy jug which looks lovely on my dresser and can even be called in to service for gravy dispension as required, a yellow chiffon dress, a White Stuff skirt with a cute bright pink bird print, an Orla Kiely scarf and a stunning navy blue silk top embellished with silver sequins for me, two pretty dresses for Anna, and a gorgeous wooden rocking horse for Sophia. rocking horseOh, and some home-made cakes, of course! I was on a total high at my lovely haul of stuff, but also at the chance to catch up with local friends, and meet some more. My idea of a perfect Sunday!

Fourth Day of Advent: The little things

My first few posts in this series have been about really big things. My husband and daughters are obviously the foundation of all my happiness, and, I would argue, the NHS is a foundation stone of the nation’s. Generally speaking I think that experiences and people make me happier than things and possessions, and I suspect that these Advent posts will reflect that. On a day to day basis, though, there are lots of little things, which are only things, but which make me smile, or give me a happy glow each time I see them.

A few years ago my friend bought me a set of Cath Kidston tea-cups for my birthday. I love them. They sit on the dresser in my dining room looking beautiful, and they’re the perfect size for an indulgent cup of hot chocolate. So it would be rude not to indulge really.cup

I have a necklace, just a simple silver heart on a chain, which my husband bought me for my 25th birthday. I wear it a lot because it seems to go with everything and because it makes me feel loved and special.

The free beauty magazine Boots produce every couple of months, makes me happy. As does the free Waitrose food magazine and those nice little recipe cards you often get in supermarkets. They make me especially happy once I’ve filed them away in my special recipe folder. I know, I’m a geek.

For me the very first stage of preparing for Christmas is getting my Nigella Christmas cookery book down off the shelf, and starting to plan menus for all our various festive get togethers. This year was even better as my Christmas organiser, a present last Christmas, also got it’s first outing. I know, I’m a geek.

candleI had a mini shopping trip around Walthamstow this morning, buying Christmas cards and a few other little stocking filler bits and pieces, and, a real treat for me – my Christmas scented candle. In life before children I lit candles a lot. I find them beautiful and romantic and fascinating just to gaze at. We ate dinner by candlelight most evenings and I loved nothing more than soaking in a candlelit bath for hours on end. Somehow there hasn’t seemed to be as much time for that over the last few years, to say nothing of the obvious risks of having candles anywhere near little fingers. I still have candles in my bathroom, but generally the closest I get to using them is giving them an ineffectual swipe with a damp cloth every few weeks (months) to remove the dust which has built up. I’m also fussy. Cheap scented candles never smell anything but artificial to me, and always remind me of toilet cleaner. I do know I’m weird about smells – I’m almost phobic about those warm wet wipes you get in Chinese restaurants or on aeroplanes because I find the fake citrus scent so upsetting. Which my husband thinks is hilarious. Rather than have a cheap candle I’d much rather put a simple tea-light in my oil burner with a few drops of lavender or bergamot essential oil. But luxury, high-end, organic, frankly pricey, scented candles are another matter. I only let myself buy one a year, at the beginning of December, and then I light it every evening, and often during the day if we have guests. I always choose something that feels seasonal – this year I’ve gone for orange and clove. It’s in pride of place on the mantlepiece, and I’m really looking forward to lighting it for the first time this evening.

All little things, but ones which I appreciate every time I use them or wear them or see them, and add their little bit to my daily happiness.