Failure

CN: sex, pain, mention of medical conditions

I’m curled on my side, my body hunched and small in the foetal position. I can feel him behind me, hovering an inch away from my back, but he knows better than to touch me. Every inch of me feels wrong, my skin feels too tight, and there’s a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m such an idiot. I thought this time would be different.

It never is.

I wrote a month ago about the pain I’ve been getting in my abdomen. That’s hard enough to talk about – how do you drop “oh yes, I missed work on Monday because I was in A&E with agonising stomach cramps that so far remain unexplained” into polite conversation? I’ve had some scans now; they’ve found nothing, which means that I’m clear of something like ovarian cysts, and I’ve taken a strong course of antibiotics, so if it was anything like PID, that would have been cleared up. The stomach pains are becoming more infrequent, and my period passed this month without pain out of the ordinary. The pains in my stomach are going, but I know that I’m not better. Not by a long shot.

The first time it happened, we were in my room at Cambridge. It was second year; my door didn’t have a lock; and my roommate could have come in at any moment. Classic student sex, rushed in between studying and essays and being caught. I remember the pain building and building, not wanting to say anything, and then crying uncontrollably after he was done, while my partner held me close and apologised over and over again.

We thought it was a fluke, a one off, a dodgy position. We wrote it off, and for a while, everything went back to normal. And then it happened again. And again. And again. Infrequent enough that I barely paid it any attention, thinking that maybe we were just rushing and needed to slow down. It got slowly worse. There would be nights when having sex would leave me in agony for hours afterwards, sitting in a hot bath to relieve the pain and brushing away my partner’s apologies. It stopped being “something that happens every now and again.” It started to happen more often. Soon, it was nearly every time we had sex. Then, it was unusual when it didn’t hurt. Now, I can’t remember when it last didn’t hurt.

As a culture, we’re obsessed with sex. We listen to songs with racy lyrics, we watch music videos with scantily clad women, porn is more watched than ever, TV shows like Love Island put sex in our living room, every night of the week. We love to talk about it, who did what with whom. Games of truth or dare and never have I ever, giggling as you reveal that one night stand you had in college. When we’re having it, it’s great. Sex is exciting, fun, something to laugh over with your friends in the pub while you hold your partner’s hand under the table and give them that look that means later.

On a more personal level, I love sex. I’m usually the loudest in the pub, making my friends blush and shush me. I spent my first year at Cambridge bringing home as many men as I could. I’ve reviewed sex toys for online blogs, and written erotica, and defended watching pornography at the Cambridge Union, and written academic essays promoting female masturbation. I love talking about sex.

It’s just so much harder to talk about when it’s going wrong.

So I put off saying anything to anyone. I hid it from my closest friends. I hid it from my partner. I would tuck my face into his neck, grit my teeth, and then smile at him afterwards, huddling in to his chest and trying to ignore the ache between my legs. I avoided going to see a doctor for so long. When I went, a middle aged woman with a quiet smile examined me, ran tests, told me that there was nothing wrong with me. She was kind, but I felt like a failure.

In Kingston, I met with my new GP. I ran through my prescriptions, that I would need to be set up with my contraceptive and my anti-depressants (thankfully, I’m no longer taking the latter) and then, at the end, I mustered all of my courage, and said in a small voice “when I have sex, it hurts. Like, it really hurts. It’s been happening for over a year.” And that GP smiled at me, and told me that it didn’t matter. I left, humiliated.

Six months later, the stomach pains bought it all back in to focus. Sitting in A&E, the doctor asked me if I had any other symptoms of endometriosis. I hesitated, and then I told her. Now, I’m being investigated at Kingston hospital for any physical issues that might be causing this, and going to see a specialist at St Mary’s in Paddington to see if its an emotional issue.

It’s hell, that’s what it is. I know that I should brush it aside. It doesn’t make me less attractive or less of a woman. Sex involves more than penetrative sex. My partner loves me, and he would never leave me over this.

But I do feel less attractive. I feel less comfortable in my own skin. Sex is more than penetrative, but I would like that to at least be an option. And as much as he loves me, why wouldn’t he walk away? There are plenty of women out there without this problem. He’s a great guy; he’d find someone else.

Every time it happens, I die a little more inside. We talk about it, agree that we just won’t do that, we’ll do everything else. And we do, and its great, and then I go and fucking ruin it by suggesting that we try it. Just once more. I’m ready. It will be fine. And then searing pain rips through me, and I find myself curled up crying, again. I’m such an idiot.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written, because I feel like a failure.

I sent the first draft of this to my partner to read. “You’re not a failure, and I’m not going to leave you, and I love you.” He’s right, of course. We’re a team. We’ll deal with this like we deal with everything. Together. Next tests are in September, so we’ll know more then.

I can and I will

CN: Sexism, use of the c-word, workplace sexism

“You’re just not a leader.”

“I went to a better university than you.”

“Women just aren’t suited to that kind of thing.”

“Why is the Chief Executive meeting with you – isn’t that a massive waste of his time?”

“I think you’re a vicious cunt.”

Well, I think you mean nothing.

You want to tear me down? Fine. Try. You will fail. I don’t need your validation. I don’t want it. It means nothing to me.

You’re not special. The world is full of insecure men unable to keep up with the world as it changes around them. If you are a woman, you will spend your life fighting against their assumptions, their prejudices. You will spend a lifetime being called “darling” in the office. You will spend a lifetime being catcalled in the street, and groped in bars, and abused by men who are not worth the dirt under your shoes. Think about it. Think about all the men who have tried to tear you down, to tell you that you are worthless. Or, almost worse; that you’re not quite good enough, not quite what they were looking for. We all know what they mean.

We don’t talk about it, far too often. We carry these silent burdens. We shrug it off. What does it matter that someone senior to you at work slipped his arm around your waist at that Christmas function? It was just a joke when that man hit on you at the end of a meeting. You shouldn’t be offended when someone mistakes you for a waitress at a work event (bitch I’m running this thing.)

Fuck that. We have been silent for too long. Next time a man looks at you and finds you wanting, you laugh right in his face. It’s far too easy to let those assumptions slither in. They are poison, creeping through the veins of every woman. You are enough. You are smart. You are beautiful. Your hips are gorgeous. Your smile is contagious. You got that job because you earned it. You can lead. You can follow. You can do, and be, whatever the hell you want to be, because this is 2017 and we will not be held down.

There will always be people to tell you that you can’t do that, you can’t achieve everything you want them to. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that they’re wrong. I’ll say it again: you are enough. Have that confidence in yourself. Whenever I come up against comments like the ones at the top of this post, I take a deep breath, and I list myself.

I am smart. I am ambitious. I am driven. I work hard. I am loved. I can do whatever I want to do.

And then I remember this, and I feel again the solidarity of thousands of women who have held themselves back because they didn’t believe in themselves. We are enough.

“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.

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.

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.