Moving on and letting go

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference at Warwick University. It was generally good fun; I met lots of new people, I got drunk in the Warwick students’ union, I ate some great food and I got to feel like a proper grownup with an (admittedly small) expenses account. I was there for the induction to the graduate scheme I’m on, so it was mostly introductions and admin. Some of it was useful. Some of it, to be brutally honest, felt like a waste of time. But there was one talk that really, really struck a chord with me. The speaker was telling us about opening a new chapter in our lives. His basic premise was that you can love what you’re doing, you can be having the time of your life, but you can still miss what you’ve lost. You can live in the moment, you can love your moment, and yet you can still mourn what you’ve left behind.

I’m enjoying my life. I live in a beautiful part of London. I see my boyfriend regularly, and I’ve met up with old friends from Cambridge since being here. I’ve joined a new rowing club, and I’m already a cox for the top women’s squad. My work is interesting and varied, and I have colleagues who are helpful and friendly. I’ve started to make friends, some of whom I’ve trusted enough to confide my mental health struggles to. I still exercise here, and I love to run alongside the river, just as I did in Cambridge. And that, right there, is the crux of the issue.

Cambridge was, is, still is, the love of my life. I come from a small town. I grew up, with friends, but always feeling on the edge, never feeling accepted. I was bullied and lonely in that small town. The scars littering my body can attest to that. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that university was like Hogwarts for smart people. I clung to that. I clung to the idea that I could escape my conservative hometown, I could find somewhere where I would be happy and safe, and I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. I never imagined something as good as Cambridge.

It had its flaws; I’m not going to deny that. But to me, for the first time in my life, I felt completely at home. The cobbled streets felt like a dream, something I had imagined and woke to find was real. The towering spires of the colleges welcomed me, even as they intimidated me. I walked across the courts of St John’s, and felt, deeply, a sense of belonging. Over the vacations, I ached for those strong walls. I was homesick for the swooping arches, the regimented grass, the uneven wooden stairs of third court and the painted roses of second court. I longed for the beauty and the warmth and the comfort.

I built a life for myself. I met my boyfriend there, and some of my happiest memories with him take place within Cambridge. Running to his college in the rain, throwing paint at each other in Lent term, study breaks in the middle of exam term, late nights huddled under sheets. I met some of my closest friends there. I met my housemates from the last year, who are funny and smart and gorgeous. I miss them more than they can know. I miss coming home to them, the kitchen windows steamed up and every available chair crowded with friends and strangers alike. There was always someone new to meet, something new to do. But, at the end of the night, there were always people to sit quietly with, friends to hold your hand and tell you it would be ok. I miss that.

I see Cambridge everywhere I go. I see the college in the beauty of the council chamber. I see the river when I walk into town. But it is a pale imitation. The council cannot match the splendour of John’s. The river is so wide, bereft of the swoops and curves that taught me how to cox. I see the red oars of Kingston, and I feel longing for the red oars of Maggie. I see my boyfriend, at the weekends; when my work and his hospital rounds allow it. No more running to Fitz in the middle of the night, desperate to see him, thinking 15 minutes was too long to go before I could be with him. Now, it’s an hour and a half across London to be in his arms. Friends are scattered across the country; even some of the ones in London feel as thought they could be a thousand miles away. I saw two of my housemates last week, and I almost cried when I met them at Waterloo station. They felt like home.

This makes it sound like all I do is miss Cambridge, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Kingston is amazing. I love so much about it, and I’m doing so many amazing things that I never imagined when I was still a student. Every time I think about Cambridge, I try and remember that lecture at Warwick. I can be happy here, I can build a new life and live it to the full; but I can still look back and mourn.

Graduating Cambridge: girl to woman

Today, I began a massive undertaking. I started to take down my wall (pictured above.) I created the wall when I was 13, a collection of photos, posters, tickets and cards that formed the basis of my teenage identity. I stopped adding to it several years ago. Yet every year at Cambridge, I have replicated it with my new life: with hall menus, race numbers, ADC tickets and birthday cards from new friends. Every year, I have taken those items down and stored them carefully. I now have three bags of them in my room, one for each year. Finally, the time has come for me to do the same to my childhood room, which is still decorated as it was when I was a girl.

Why am I doing this? Partly it’s because I will be moving out in the autumn, and feel like I should leave my room in a passable state for my parents. More importantly than that, however, is the shifting of my identity, and the need I have felt since graduating several weeks ago to consolidate it. The items that 13, 14, 15 year old Sarah decorated the walls with are telling. There are anti-bullying posters and declarations of self-esteem; ill-fated attempts to reclaim ownership of my body and mind which would fail for years to come. There are gay rights slogans and the flag I waved at my first pride parade; evidence of the stirrings of my activism and sense of social justice that have shaped so much of my life since.

There are pictures of young men, actors mainly, that teenage Sarah found attractive. There are movie tickets, neat and lined up in a vertical column. They are a testament to hours spent traipsing round the nearest town with a girl I no longer talk to, whiling away our adolescence by absorbing ourselves into someone else’s life. There are tickets to plays and concerts: a particular favourite being The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I first saw when I was 15 (with my Dad, not knowing the contents of the play. My conservative father was, it goes without saying, less than impressed.)

There are pictures drawn by friends, of jokes long since forgotten. Satirical cartoons, cut from copies of Private Eye, evidence of a burgeoning interest in politics that would eventually lead me to Cambridge. There is the personal statement I wrote when I was seventeen: in which I, ironically, express an interest in both Middle Eastern and gender politics (both of which I specialised in during my final year.)

Since graduating, I’ve been trying as hard as possible to keep myself busy. I have gone to the pub with my friends, met up with my boyfriend’s friends, cooked dinner for my family and spent more hours in the kitchen (already) than I would care to admit to. I even cleaned house (without being asked) the other day. I have also started sorting through my bedroom, a task of considerable effort. Part of this has been taking old clothes to charity shops, sorting through my family’s extensive video collection (including no less than three copies of Pocahontas.) In amongst this, I have been thinking about who I am now I’ve graduated.

Cambridge has been such a huge part of my life for three years, and it’s daunting to consider who I am without it. I will have to find a new identity, one that can move forward while still holding on to who I am. Some things will not change. I will still love cooking. I will still be a feminist. I will still love Disney movies, and dancing to Taylor Swift, and I plan to find a new rowing club. Some things will change, however. I won’t be a politics student; I will be a professional woman. Outside of Cambridge and my hometown, my name will be meaningless. There is some comfort in that.

Caitlin Moran once wrote that other people are mirrors; you see who you are reflected in them. If the mirror is distorted or broken, however, then you will see a false picture. For so many years, I have seen myself reflected in the hometown that I grew up in. As hard as I have tried to shake it, the words fat, ugly, bitch, go kill yourself, no one would care have still reverberated around my mind. When I walk down the high street here, I forget sometimes that I am a graduate of Cambridge University, that I am smart and funny and sexy. I remember being followed home from school, the time a group of boys threw rocks at me, and I feel once again eleven and scared and alone.

Leaving my hometown is a huge step for that very reason. I hate running into people I knew from school; and in a town this small, it is a weekly occurrence. Here, I hate the sound of my surname; the bullies at school would always call me by my full name, denying me the humanity of simply being “Sarah.” Here, I avert my eyes in Sainsbury’s, wary of being roped into a conversation with someone who called me a freak at school.

I have written before about exercising to reclaim my body. The coming months are about finding a new identity to reclaim my mind. I will find new mirrors, ones that reflect truly. Clearing out my childhood room is just part of that. As I look through my memories, I see moments of friendship and happiness, something new to build myself on. Thirteen year old Sarah needed self-esteem slogans painted across the walls. Eight years later, I will finally carry them in my head.

Learning something about yourself

“It’s how you respond to those situations, how you come back from them… that’s why we do this. To learn something about ourselves.”

My coach was speaking in the context of the May bumps. For those not in the know, bumps is a four day competition held at the end of Lent and Easter term in Cambridge. It can get pretty complicated, but the basic aim is to “bump” the boat in front of you (literally) as many times in the four days as possible. Once bumped, the boats swap positions and then race in their new positions the next day. Crews that bump every day win blades; crews that are bumped every day are awarded spoons. This May term will be my sixth set of bumps races.

I’ve never had much luck in the bumps: most of the bumps I’ve rowed or coxed in have been with W2, which has struggled to attract rowers, coaches and coxes over the years. Being bumped or rowing over again and again is demoralising, and it’s sometimes hard to keep motivating yourself. This is part of the reason, I think, for why the women’s side has struggled to field a strong W2 each year: no one gets to taste success, so they leave.

And yet, through all of this, I have stayed positive and kept rowing. I think this has taught me the most: that I care about my sport, and I’m willing to give it everything. As I go forward into the next stage of my life, that’s something that I hope will stay with me. The ability to face disappointment and continue on is something that I’m proud of.

Of all these experiences, the one that hit me hardest was actually that last day of Lent bumps this year. My crew had bumped up every day before, and everyone in the crew was tentatively hoping that we would make it four times and win our blades. Sitting on the start line, my heart was pounding. I knew that my steering on the previous days hadn’t been perfect; not bad by any means, but the margin for error is so small, every single detail matters. We went off hard, knowing that they would be a tough crew to beat. They actually pulled away relatively early on, but I didn’t realise: I’m not a great judge of distance, and I thought that we were holding them. As we came round Grassy, I could see them closing in on the crew in front, and a wave of terror went through me. Luckily, Downing pulled away, and we moved up on them again, but we couldn’t get closer than half a length. It was hard row. We did our “bumps move.” Twice. We took the rate up. There was a point, around the P+E, when I knew that it would take a miracle for us to bump. And yet I was still willing it to happen, still calling the crew on, right until Pembroke’s stern crossed the finish line and they were safe.

Realising that we weren’t going to make it was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. The coxes seat is a unique position for this very reason: you know what’s going on in front, while the rest of the crew doesn’t. I couldn’t let them know that we weren’t going to make it. After we crossed the finish line, I was close to tears. Not just because we’d missed out on blades, but because I knew how much it meant to the eight other people in the boat. We had trained so hard, and it hadn’t been enough on the day. Over the next few weeks, I thought a lot about that race. I wondered if my corners could have tighter, what could I have called differently, what would have made the difference? In the end, bumps is a competition of luck, and I’ve had to accept that. But that moment outside of the P+E is burned into my brain. I wish it has gone differently, but you can’t change the past. All you can do is learn from what came before, and hope that you do things differently next time. Fingers crossed that continues into this week of bumps.

Graduate job hunting

From the second year of university onwards, family gatherings become increasingly stressful. This is primarily because it is the time when relatives start to ask you “so what are you going to do with your life? Do you have an internship sorted? What are your plans for when you graduate?” Over the Christmas break, my grandmother and I had this conversation multiple times, which always went the same way:

Grandma: “So, what are you going to do when you graduate?” 

Me: “I’m not sure yet…”

Grandma: “Hahaha, very funny… what are you really going to do?”

Me: “…”

For some people, they know what they want to do when they graduate. For those doing degrees in medicine or similar subjects, the career path is at least partially decided. For those of us doing an arts degree, there isn’t really an obvious career path. People say “you could do anything!” But that is precisely the problem: I could do anything, and I have no idea where to even start looking.

I didn’t get an internship last year. This was mainly because most of the companies I applied to either rejected to me or ignored me. It was also because I fundamentally disagree with unpaid internships. I believe that they are un-meritocratic, giving opportunities predominantly to young people with wealthy parents. I have spent every holiday since I started Cambridge working two jobs; the money I earn goes directly to buying food and paying rent during term time. My parents could probably support me through an unpaid internship: but it would entail hardship and sacrifice on their part, something that I am reluctant to ask of them.

So, I went into applying for jobs without an internship, but with years of work experience, extra-curriculars, good grades, and a degree from Cambridge. Finding a job should be doable, right?

Wrong: graduate scheme after graduate scheme rejected me, most of them at the first hurdle. For some, I went through to the interview stage. Some of these went well; some went badly. Favourite questions I was asked include “when were you last drunk?”, “tell us about a recent mistake?” and “how will you revolutionise our company?” (The previous Saturday; I panicked and said “I don’t make mistakes” – I don’t think he was impressed; I have literally not even left university yet, cut a woman some slack.)

Along the way, I have navigated the bizarre rules that govern interview conduct: heels, but not too high, a dress, but not too revealing, makeup, but not too heavy. The words “networking lunch” appearing in emails has filled me with dread; I either want to stuff my face with food, or make small talk. Doing both at the same time is not my idea of fun.

In amongst this, there have been highlights. I have learned that I can, in fact, run rather fast in heels; as evidenced by the time my train was late and I sprinted past the houses of parliament to make it to my interview in time, desperately hoping that no one would mistake me for a security threat. I have learned that I am very good at directing a team to make paper handbags, and then taking charge of selling them to an imaginary vendor. I have learned how the buses run in Cambridge (in practise, not just how to get from a to b). I have learned that I can sit in a room of men (all trying to be the “alpha” of the group) and face them down. I feel like when I walk into interviews now, I stand taller, I talk more confidently. It has forced me to think about myself in a way that I haven’t had to do before: my strengths and my weaknesses. Someone is (hopefully) going to pay me enough to live on: I need to think what I can bring to an organisation to warrant that.

Today, I had my final interview for a grad scheme I am through to the final stage of. It was unlike any interview I had ever had. It was with the head of the organisation. He asked me what my personal values were. We debated the merits of different forms of equality. He asked me if Simone de Beauvoir was a hypocrite. We talked about my personal role models, what kind of leader I want to be, whose leadership I admire (my current female rowing captains.)

It was interesting, and intellectually stimulating, and it made me think. The office is based somewhere I want to live, with a river nearby where I can continue to cox. I want this job desperately. For the first time, I can see myself not as a student, but as a businesswoman. It’s a strange realisation, because I have been terrified of leaving Cambridge for so long. But I realise now that there is a whole world outside of the bubble. I have been happy here, and I will be happy in the future. Either way, I will be happy when I land a job and have to stop applying for graduate jobs.

Mental Health in Cambridge

TW: mental health, depression, self-harm mention, anxiety, medication

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and I’ve finally found the courage to do it. This is hard to write, but here we go: last summer, I was diagnosed with depression. Sitting in that GP surgery didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. I suffered from depression as a teenager, and I knew the symptoms by heart. I recovered the first time when I was 16, and every year, on my birthday, I would close my eyes and thank a deity I don’t even believe in for giving me one more year free of the pain and the fear. I carry the scars from those years, both physical and mental. I prayed that I would never have to go back there. But I know how depression works, and I know that it is often a problem that affects people throughout their lives.

This time around, there was no obvious trigger: no family problems, no school bullies, no bodily insecurity. Maybe, if I had to guess, the stress of returning to Cambridge for my final year and the fear of finding a job when I graduate (a quest I am, incidentally, still on) proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At first, it was mild depression. I had days when I functioned relatively normally. I had days when I struggled to get out of bed, but I usually managed it by midday. I was told to start exercising more rigorously, so I started running: I ran every time I felt sad, and it helped. I ran nearly every day, until a knee injury forced me to stop. Without my coping mechanism, my depression spiralled out of control. Daily activities became a nightmare. I would desperately struggle to drag myself out of bed every morning. Basic things like showering and cooking became insurmountable challenges. I missed nearly every single one of my lectures. I spent whole days sitting on my bed, staring at the wall in my bedroom. I cried constantly.

Still, I didn’t tell anyone outside of my close circle of friends and my boyfriend: not my college, not my family, not my crew. I was ashamed. I felt weak. When I was bullied as a teenager, I learnt how to defend myself, how to put up shields. It has served me well since, but it means that I find it hard to open up emotionally. When I told my two closest friends at home, it was through a letter: I physically couldn’t bring myself to tell them in person. When the holidays came, I worked as hard as I could to catch up. I started applying to job after job. I learned how much rejection can hurt, as one by one, every graduate scheme I had applied to rejected me.

I hit rock bottom in January. Away from my friends and boyfriend on a training camp in London, I lost my support network and I failed to cope. I was sharing a room with two other girls, and I couldn’t find time in the evenings to cry if I needed to. Instead, I walked the streets of Teddington, sobbing down the phone to my boyfriend. Between training sessions, I retreated to the women’s locker room and cried, wiping away my tears in time to go outside and cox another outing. When I came back to Cambridge, I was broken. One night, midnight, I felt the familiar urge to hurt myself, as I had all those years ago. Panicked, I ran downstairs and sat in my housemate’s room until the urge subsided. I knew I needed to get help.

Another GP, this time a sympathetic woman with kind eyes. She put me on anti-depressants for the first time in my life: and it felt like a failure. But I took them, desperate to stop feeling this way. The side effects were horrendous. I stopped sleeping for nearly a week: I would lie there, exhausted, knowing that I had to get up in the morning and work. I felt nauseous all of the time: one of my housemates introduced me to the wonders of peppermint tea, and brought it to me whenever the sickness hit too hard. The medication made me feel dizzy, and anxious, and afraid.

Yet, when the side effects passed, the depression did not. I was prepared for this: the GP had told me that it could take weeks for the pills to kick in fully. The crying didn’t stop. If anything, it got worse. I stopped eating, and it was only through the kindness of my boyfriend and friends that I didn’t starve most days. Waking up remained a huge struggle. I finally went to see my tutor: a new one, a woman I hadn’t met before. I sat in the office of this stranger, and I cried, and she sat there and awkwardly tried to console me. Later, she would take me around the fellow’s garden and point out the different trees, and the bees making honey. I went to see my DoS, and I sat through our appointment and didn’t say a word. It took the encouragement of a friend to take me back. She sat outside while I finally broke the news to my academic role model that I wasn’t coping. I finally – after over a month on the university waiting list – saw a counsellor.

My work suffered, of course: but here, a few emails from my DoS to the relevant supervisors exempted me from handing in any essays that I couldn’t cope with. My sport suffered; I would spend an hour crying in my room, and then dry my eyes and head to the boathouse. Any mistake during an outing made me panic, stressed and fearful, the new chemicals in my body introducing an anxiety I have never before experienced. More than once, I cried in the middle of an outing, hastily covering the microphone and hoping that my stroke seat hadn’t noticed. If he did, he never made me feel bad about it. Several times, my friends suggested that I leave my sport behind. But most days, it was the only thing that kept me going. Whether they knew it or not, those eight men became my support network through the worst of my depression. Even on the worst of my days, I found the energy to haul myself out of bed to go and meet them. I structured what little work I did around training with them. Most days, they managed to make me smile and laugh, even when no one else could.

Slowly, the depression started to lift: I would have good days again, in amongst the bad. I started to laugh again. I attended supervisions and lectures. I forced myself back into exercise, and baking, and all of the things that I love. By the time that exam term came around, I was roughly stable: not happy, by any stretch of the imagination, but functioning and able to revise.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. The medication I’m on still gives me severe anxiety: when I told my new GP about this, she asked me if my boyfriend was cheating on me (twice, in case my flat “…no” wasn’t enough for her) and then wrote me a prescription for two more months without enquiring further. A month ago, I put in a repeat prescription, only to be given 6 months of contraceptive instead (helpful, but not ideal when you’ve run out of sertraline and been told that the withdrawal symptoms make going on it look like a picnic.) That day, I cried outside Sainsbury’s for half an hour, while my boyfriend held me close and tried to shield me from curious passers by.

Throughout this, I have been lucky: I have been supported by my friends, my housemates, my old (and new) crew (whether they know it or not), and especially my boyfriend. Some days are hard: this morning was hard. On my bad days, I still struggle to get out of bed and feed myself. But on my good days, I laugh and cox and bake and hang out with my friends. On my really good days, I dance around my room singing aloud to Taylor Swift. My depression does not define me: it is a battle, but one that I will win.

If you’re struggling with any of the above, there are places that can help:

In Cambridge: your tutor, your DoS, your porters, the college nurse, the university counselling service, Student Minds

More generally: Samaritans, Depression Alliance, Mind

Taking a break in exam term

I have often thought, during the last three years of my degree, that the working culture at Cambridge is incredibly unhealthy. Perhaps it is to be expected when you put a group of highly intelligent students – who are often used to being top of the class at school – in the same place and then publicly rank them at the end of the year (a practise that, thankfully, Cambridge is soon to abandon). It is a culture in which long nights in the library are seen as the norm. Days off and weekends are a luxury seldom taken. Working 6 hour days in the holidays is not only encouraged, it’s expected: how else are you going to cover everything on the incredibly long reading lists? In my first year, I remember my DoS saying that I could maybe take Christmas day off, but certainly no more than that. I wasn’t entirely sure at the time that she was joking.

This is my final term at Cambridge, and my entire degree is riding on the three exams that I have coming up, and the dissertation I handed in several weeks ago. I spent the entire of my summer holidays working on that dissertation: I would sit, in my boyfriend’s back garden, ploughing through as many books as humanely possible. I knew that when I came back to Cambridge, devoting that kind of time to it would be impossible, and I was right. It put me in good stead for actually writing it, but it also meant that I barely took any time off over the summer.

My dissertation was handed in maybe a month ago: and since then, I have worked solid 7 hour days, balancing that with attending job interviews and coxing my rowing crew. In spite of my exams not finishing for another two weeks (thanks for that, politics department), there is an overbearing sense that I cannot afford to stop working. I must keep waking up early, I must keep spending hours each day in the library. So what if I’m tired, and unhappy, and my friends are finishing their exams and having a good time? If I stop, I will fail. This is why, on the way to job interviews, I have taken work and revised on the train, on the tube. This is why I went to a job interview yesterday morning, and was back revising again by 2pm.

The problem is, I am not working efficiently anymore. I am staring at facts, and numbers, and theories, and feeling increasingly unhappy and isolated. This morning, a good friend of mine came round for a cup of tea, and suggested that I take a day off. At first, I was adamant that I couldn’t. I had to keep working, how could I justify the time off, I would slip a class mark and then I would never get a job… but that’s not true. The truth is, I’m tired, I’m not motivated and I need some time to just be me. I am not being “lazy”, nor am I wrecking my chance of getting the degree I want. Sometimes, we need to take care of ourselves before we look at our academic commitments.

So, today I have been productive, but in my own way. I have:

  1. Picked up some stuff I needed from Superdrug
  2. Gone to Sainsbury’s and stocked up on food
  3. Baked brownies
  4. Sung along to Disney songs while making said brownies
  5. Done the mountain of washing up that has accumulated in the last few days
  6. Spent time with a friend
  7. Gone sculling with my crew
  8. Written this blog post

Perhaps tonight, I will get an early night. Perhaps I will practise some yoga. Perhaps – the most likely outcome – I will finally watch another episode of The Walking Dead, having left the show on a massive cliff hanger the last time I found a spare hour to watch it.

It might be exam term, but I urge any of you who still have exams and feel burned out: take some time out. Get outside. Look after yourself. You deserve to be happy, and it’s ok to prioritise that.

(P.S. and for anyone who wants the recipe for my kickass brownies, it’s below:)

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Ingredients:

200g dark chocolate – ideally good quality, but I use Sainsbury’s basics and it works fine

150g unsalted butter

100g milk, dark or white chocolate, to preference (I use white)

125g brown sugar

125g caster sugar

4 eggs

85g plain flour

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp cocoa powder (again, Sainsbury’s own brand is fine)

A pinch of salt

Method:

  1. Grease and line your tin, and set the oven to 170 degrees.
  1. Over a pan of simmering water, melt the dark chocolate and the butter in a heatproof bowl. When melted and combined, set aside to cool.
  1. Beat in the sugars and the vanilla extract.
  1. When fully combined, beat in the four eggs one at a time.

5.  Stir through the flour, cocoa powder and salt.

  1. Finally, roughly chop the white/milk/dark chocolate. Pour the brownie mix into the tin, top with the chopped chocolate, and bake for 20-25mins. It should have a slight wobble in the centre, but not too much. Wait to cool slightly, and then slice.

Imperfections: Learning to love your body

TW: self-esteem issues, counselling, exercise, weight loss, weights given in numbers

Growing up, I wasn’t what you would call a sporty girl. In fact, I was the opposite: shy and awkward, I tried to avoid getting involved in sports at school, for fear of being mocked. It didn’t help that my school operated a segregated PE programme: sports like football and rugby for the boys, cheerleading and (I kid you not) “Bollywood dancing” for the girls. As an uncoordinated, gangly teenager without a sense of rhythm and chronically low self-esteem, dancing around with pom-poms was not my idea of a good time.

Even then, I was intensely aware of my body. I have always been slim: pictures of me as a young girl show a freckled, lanky wildling. My sister and I spent our childhood out of doors, running around, climbing trees and racing our bikes around the estate. Yet, when puberty struck, my body understandably began to change. My hips began to jut outwards, my body filled out, and – to my absolute horror – I grew breasts. All of this was accompanied by a kind of dysphoria: I knew logically that this was supposed to happen, that I was still slim and that even if I wasn’t, it was hardly the end of the world. And yet I still cared.

My teenage years were a battle with my body, as I think many young people’s are. I would spend hours, alone in my bedroom, desperately doing sit up after sit up in the hope of elusive abs. I would look in glossy magazines, despairing when the women were either gorgeously curvy or stick thin: but no one like me, slim on top and then widening out massively at the hips. I once sat in a counsellor’s office, 15 years old, and had her ask me what I liked about my body. The only thing I could say was “my ears.” I genuinely had found fault with the rest of my body.

I grew out of the gangly, insecure phase. I hit 17, 18, and I could legally go out. I realised that in spite of what I’d always feared, men did find me attractive. The realisation that I could go up to a man in a bar and ask for his number was a revelation to me. Coming to Cambridge continued this revelation. I’m not ashamed to say that I spent my first year dating – and bringing home – as many men as I could. Slowly, I realised that men really don’t care what you look like with your clothes off: most are just happy to have a naked woman in the room. Self-esteem needs deeper roots than being attractive to men, however, and Cambridge helped me to find that as well.

Coming up to Cambridge, I knew that I wanted to take up a sport: I just had no idea what. In fresher’s week, I attended my college boat club barbeque, and I’ve never looked back. Rowing became my obsession, and for the first time in my life, I found a sport I enjoyed. I also found more than that, however. I learned how to do circuits with my crew, how to work out my core, and my legs (of course – every day is leg day for a rower) and my arms. I still remember that first week, shaking on the mat, unable to hold a plank for more than 20 seconds.

In turn, a new found love of working out led me to the college gym, where a friend and I would spend hours trying out all of the machines, before giving up and running on the treadmills, discussing feminist politics (much to the consternation of everyone else in the gym, I’m sure.) It led to learning to run last summer, really run – and finally I understand what Caitlin Moran meant when she said that running fast is like dancing in a straight line. I learned to rock climb with my boyfriend. I regularly practise yoga. And, for the last couple of weeks, I have been lifting weights with my new crew.

When I exercise now, it is very different to that scared teenage girl, performing sit-ups to look like an unattainable ideal of beauty in a magazine. Of course, I still have insecurities. I feel like my hips are too wide, my nose too big, my freckles ugly, my stomach not perfectly flat. If I could change all of those things though, I’m not sure that I would. The thing is, I have been thin: really thin. At the end of my first exam term, stress and heartbreak caused me to lose 2 stone. I was 19 years old, 5’8 and I weighed just over 7 stone. When I look back at pictures taken on holiday that year (including the one at the top of this post), you can count my ribs. My hipbones jut out alarmingly. My stomach isn’t flat: it actually caves inwards. Perversely, I thought at the time that I looked good.

Coming to terms with my body has been years of work in the making, and the battle is not yet won. Perhaps it never will be: I certainly will never escape the ideal of “the perfect woman” that society seems to intent to press upon us. My mantra when I work out – as cheesy as it sounds – is that I’m doing this because I love my body, not because I hate it. I am not contorting my body into challenging yoga poses to shave that little bit of fat off of my hips: I am doing it to stretch my body to its limits, to places that I couldn’t achieve even a few months ago. When I run, it is not to fit into a smaller size of jeans; it is to be outside, in the cold air, feeling my feet pound the pavement. Now, when I do sit ups, it is not for perfect abdominals (although I certainly wouldn’t mind them) but for the endorphin rush when I finish exercising.

Acceptance and self-love is a long journey, one that many people spend their lives working towards. I hope, that as I get older and my body continues to change, I will continue to love it. I hope that I can keep seeing my body not in terms of how it looks compared to the women in the media, but to what it can do: how fast it can run, how much it can lift, how deep it can squat. And I hope that I love my body for all of things that it allows me to do everyday: for the ability to cook, and dance in the kitchen, and cosy up with friends on movie nights, and hug my boyfriend whenever I want to. It’s a long journey: but it’s one well worth undertaking.