“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

CN: body image, weight loss, potentially triggering comments, mention of actual weights

I wrote a while ago about body image. I had just gotten to a point – finally, after so many years – of being happy with the way I looked. I wrote that I would ignore the weight on the scales, and I would focus on loving my body for what it is; flawed and human and beautiful. Nearly a year later, that ideal is under threat.

Moving to London, I joined a new rowing club. It’s easily the best decision I’ve made since coming here. My new girls are funny and smart and kind, and getting to know them, becoming their cox, has been a pleasure. It’s given me somewhere to go when the days at work seem too long, somewhere to focus and forget how much I miss Cambridge, how much I miss my friends, how much I long to see my boyfriend. A bad day at work can be worked out in the gym with them, lifting half of what they do. It can be alleviated squatting behind them on the ergs, watching their splits drop and willing them on with everything that I have. The best times are when we’re on the water, and it’s still and calm and I can feel myself slipping back into that place I loved at Cambridge, where the world is a puzzle and your voice, your words, provide the solution. When there is nothing else in the world but the rhythm of the rowers, and everything else melts away. It’s why I love racing so much; in that moment, we are one.

We have a new coach. He’s eccentric, and constantly grumpy, and also, I suspect, slightly brilliant. I enjoy coxing under him; it’s stressful, but he reminds me of my DoS at Cambridge, a woman I admired above all others. Compliments are rare; criticism is swift; and you can feel yourself becoming better the more time you spend with them. It’s not a picnic. More than once, I’ve sat in the boat on the edge of tears, as my coach tears into me and I feel, more than anything, that I’ve let my girls down. But then he says “good job today, Sarah”, and suddenly it’s all worth it. He’s clever like that.

The first time we met, he took one look at me, his eyes pausing on my long legs, my strong thighs, the curve of my hips.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

It was not the last comment he would make on my weight in the months that followed.

“How much weight can you lose and how fast?”

“You’ll need to cut down”

“Do you even fit into the boat?”

“See her? She’s a real size for a cox”

“You probably weigh as much as me!”

“We’ll need to run that muscle and fat off of you”

“You need to take responsibility for your own weight.”

“We need to get you down to an acceptable weight.”

I’m big for a cox. I’m tall, always have been, and with my long legs comes extra weight. The minimum weight for a women’s cox is 50kg. The minimum weight for a men’s cox is 55kg. I am currently sitting at around 60kg. The whole point of the minimums is to stop coaches forcing their coxes to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, as going below that results in the cox having to carry weights into the boat and so any advantage is lost. 50kg for me is not possible; my coach accepts that, even if he’s not thrilled at the idea. But 55kg is certainly within reach, and that’s what he wants me to get down to.

I’ve never tried to lose weight as an adult woman. My body has changed so much over the years, gaining and losing weight, and it’s now settled into where it’s meant to be. Where it’s happy being. This is the me that runs and lifts weights and does yoga and climbs. This is the me that dances around the kitchen and spoons my boyfriend late at night and wiggles into skinny jeans and buys tiny crop tops from charity shops. If I wanted to, I could tell my coach to bugger off, tell him that I love myself and I won’t change for anyone.

But I know that I have it in me to lose that weight. I’m competitive; I want the best boat I can get, and there are smaller coxes in my way. More than anything, I know it would help my girls. The trouble is, how do you love yourself when you’re constantly weighing yourself? When every mouthful you eat has to be analysed? When you find yourself hating yourself a little bit more every day? When a glance into the mirror isn’t “damn girl, you look hot today” but “fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have had that sandwich for lunch”?

I don’t have the answer. I need to take this slow and steady. I need to lose weight doing the things I love; I need to run, faster, and lift (if not anything too heavy) and climb, and stretch. I need to cook, healthy meals from scratch. I need to dance around that kitchen, and then I need to snuggle on to the sofa and watch a movie with a glass of wine. And if, it the end of everything, I can’t get to 55kg, I need to be the best damn cox I can be. I reckon that’s more important than an extra 2kg any day.

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Food

“Doesn’t it look good?”

“Yes. You’re a great cook, Sarah. In fact, I’d call you a chef.”

They are simple words, and yet they meant the world to me. They came from my dad, upon seeing me take tonight’s dinner – of stuffed peppers and courgettes with homemade garlic bread – out of the oven. They meant a lot for two reasons. My dad and I have always had a strained relationship. Compliments or praise have always been rare and hard earned. I distinctly remember telling him my GCSE results, beaming with pride, and seeing him nod once and walk away. A-levels were better; and in fact, calling him to say that I’d secured my place at Cambridge was the first time I can remember him saying he was proud of me. As I get older, I’m working on mending my relationship with him. It’s a slow process, and a difficult one. Knowing that he enjoys the food I make means a lot to me.

But there is another reason why his words pleased me, and that’s because I love cooking. I love food. I love it the way that other people love their families, or their partners, or their sport. I wake up thinking about what I will cook later, and I fall asleep planning meals (last night, I fell asleep planning salads for an upcoming barbeque I’m catering.) When I was bullied at school, there were two things that never failed to comfort me when I got home: writing and cooking. Writing took over my nights. I would huddle in my room, pouring my soul on to the paper. It was something that the bullies couldn’t touch. I created my secret worlds, and I filled them with friends, with magic, with love. The rest of the time, I spent in the kitchen. I cooked my first full meal when I was eleven. It was pasta with tomato sauce, but I made the sauce from scratch. I spent hours peeling the skin from tomatoes, sautéing them with onion and garlic, adding a little wine, a pinch of oregano. It was average at best, but it sparked a passion in me that has yet to be rivalled.

My days are built around the food I eat. I plan my lunch as I eat breakfast (while reading a cooking book at the same time, of course.) I shape my social life around cooking for friends, cooking for my housemates, cooking for my boyfriend. At school, several days a week, I would bring in tins of cakes or cookies, and watch them disappear among my friends. Coming home from school, I would put music on in the kitchen and start baking again, the rhythm and process always managing to soothe me. At university, my final year, I finally got an oven. I had the pleasure of five housemates more than willing to consume what I was making, and I fell into the habit of baking around my work. I would spend a morning making a loaf of bread, working on my laptop around kneading, proving, shaping, baking. The week of Lent bumps, I baked every day, under strict instructions from our coach that my boys had recovery food. Oat cookies, fruit loaf, chocolate cupcakes (at the end of the week), the leftovers devoured by my housemates.

I love to cook. I love selecting the ingredients as I walk around the supermarket. I love weighing the courgettes in my hand, selecting the brightest tomatoes, the firmest carrots. I love hunting through the meat aisles, looking for anything discounted, anything I can freeze. My store cupboard is always full, of beans and pulses, herbs and spices, pasta and rice, cous cous and noodles. I love trying new recipes, new ideas. When I cook, it is chaotic, I take over the whole kitchen. I taste as I go along, a pinch of turmeric here, a cinnamon stick thrown into a beef casserole at the last minute, a grind of pepper into a risotto. I grow herbs in the garden (not in a pot – I can’t keep them alive for longer than a week in a pot) and I love to run my hands over them, inhaling their scent, deciding what to do with them.

Nothing excites me more than cooking new food. One of my friends is vegetarian, and I love looking for new recipes when I cook for her. It has led me to vegetable curries, stuffed peppers, vegetarian lasagnes and inventive stir fries. Another friend is a vegan, and it recently led to vegan brownies, soft and rich and crumbly. Last summer, I taught myself how to make a selection of Indian curries. I spent hours researching them online, reading as many recipes as possible, looking for the similarities, how I could make them the best possible. I tested and perfected them, one at a time, changing the levels of spice and chilli and fire. By the end of the summer, I could make nearly half a dozen different ones, all distinct, all (in my humble opinion) delicious.

When my dad ate the stuffed peppers, he didn’t say anything. But he smiled, and that’s enough for me.

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.