“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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Fear

CN: Sexual harassment, flashing, sexism, threat, mention of sexual assault, mention of potential rape

I love horror movies. Some of my favourite films and TV shows – Scream, Silence of the Lambs, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Martyrs – belong to the genre. Some of them, I love for their complexity and their intrigue, like Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs. Some, like Scream, I love for guessing who the killer is. Some I love just for the gore, something thought provoking and shocking (and trust me, I’ve never seen anything as shocking as Martyrs. Saw eat your heart out.) Most of the time, though, I’m just looking to be scared. Like many people, I find it fun, sitting in the dark, not sure who will live and who will die. It’s harmless, and you know (however much it might seem like a serial killer is lurking in your closet as you lie in bed that night) that you’re safe.

Today, I wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t a movie, and it wasn’t fun.

It was early morning, and I was walking to my new boat club, excited, nervous, still a little sleepy. I’ve been planning to join for a while, and today was meant to be my first outing with the top women’s squad. The walk from my home is relatively long – about half an hour – but I was entertaining myself by playing on my phone, looking around as the sun rose over the river. The last part of my walk took me through a park, only for maybe the final five minutes. The park was dark, not well lit, and it was pretty much empty. Still, I kept walking. I was worried I was going to be late for my first session. I was concentrating on my phone, when I sensed someone near to me.

I glanced up, and there was a man, standing just a few feet away from me on the same path. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a black balaclava that covered his entire face, leaving only crude holes for his lips and eyes. I was taken aback, and I kept walking. Then, I glanced over again, nervous now, and I saw that he had dropped his trousers. He had dropped his trousers, and he was masturbating himself. And he was looking right at me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I could do. All I knew was that I had to get away, as fast as I could, without antagonising him. I quickened my pace, but kept it at a walk. I lowered my eyes to my phone. I toyed with calling my mother or boyfriend but decided that I didn’t want the man to hear the sound of my voice. I didn’t want to look back. I couldn’t hear footsteps behind me, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I felt sick and embarrassed and suddenly, painfully, aware of how vulnerable I was. My boyfriend wasn’t expecting me back for hours, and no one at the club had my number. If that man had decided to attack me, I would have been entirely vulnerable. As I neared the end of the park, I saw the lights of the boat club, heard the familiar whir of ergs. I dared a glance behind me; the man was nowhere to be seen. I entered the boat club; I met my new crew; I coxed an outing; and I helped the women put their boat away; and I smiled and laughed and said I would see them tomorrow. I walked home, and it was only as I crossed that path in the park again that I remembered what had happened. It was daylight, late morning, the park was busy and full of people, families and children and women. I was still scared.

I was scared as I walked home, and through the park near to my house, and when my boyfriend and I went in to town later in the day to go food shopping. This is a fear that every woman knows. The fact that I could brush aside what happened this morning so easily is evidence of that. I am used to that fear, when I walk home alone at night, or I see men in public and no one else is around. I feel it when a man’s eyes linger on me in public. I felt it, 16, when a boy I had gone on a date with held me down and rubbed himself against me, and I lay there, scared and not sure how to react. I knew then what I know now; that the power was in his hands, that I was vulnerable, and that if he chose to hurt me, there’s no guarantee that I could defend myself. We as women carry these scars, we carry this fear.

I called the police when I got home. I talked to a sympathetic woman, who took down the details of what had happened and tried to comfort me. I am walking that same route tomorrow morning. And I’m scared. But I know that I want to go cox another outing, I want to make new friends and commit myself to my sport all over again. I’ll just have my phone out and ready to call for help. Just in case.

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.

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.

Sexism in Cambridge

TW: Mention of sexual violence, victim blaming, sexual harassment, homophobia, sexism, mental health mention

I’ve thought a lot about this blog post in the last few days. In my head, I’ve been running through my time at Cambridge, which has, on the whole, been incredible. I’ve spent it in the cold on the river, in the heat of Cindies, debating with supervision partners and laughing with friends. And yet, the more I’ve reflected on my time here as I come up to graduating, the more I have realised how sexism has coloured my time here.

Some of it has been run of the mill, barely-needs-to-be-mentioned sexism. It has been men staring in the street when I dare to wear a short skirt. Being shouted at out of car windows as I walk to the boat club. Being groped in Life. Wolf-whistled as I walk home from a club. And once, memorably, a fire truck pulling over and the fireman driving commenting on my arse before speeding away.

It has been supervisions with supervisors telling me to “write like a man.” It has meant being gently mocked for an interest in gender studies, as though that is less of a valid interest than global politics, or political economy, or history of theory. It has been my dissertation supervisor, one of the women I admire above all others, telling me “street harassment doesn’t happen anymore.” (Perhaps I should send this to her with the above paragraph highlighted?)

It has been arguing with – overwhelmingly male – students, who seem to believe that feminism is no longer necessary, that I am just being “shrill” and “overbearing” for expressing my opinions. I have explained my dissertation to men who clearly think they know better. I have been told “asexuality isn’t real.” I was once forced to remove my roommate’s friend from our shared set after he claimed that “most rape victims are lying.” I recently sat in the hall of my college and spent two hours listening to the guy next to me explaining that “gay marriage isn’t necessary” and that “women are just not as suited to law as men are.” Needless to say, I drank rather a lot that night.

Much of the time, I have walked the thin line between calling out the people who are sexist, and keeping quiet. As I said in my first blog post, my feminism and womanhood do not need your justification. I am a person before I am a woman, a woman before I am a feminist: and sometimes I get tired of arguing with ignorant men for my right to be recognised as a human being. Part of being a feminist is walking that line, weighing up whether it is worth your time to engage, or whether you should just let it go. Sometimes, the consequences for speaking out can be difficult to deal with.

One of the most shocking instances of sexism that I have encountered in my time here came from within my sport. Until recently, I was part of a nearly all male sports team. Overall, they were a lovely bunch of guys: witty, smart, fun to be around. However, being the only woman in a male sport’s team can be tough. Being a feminist in a male sport’s team can be even tougher. Sexism wasn’t a regular occurrence, but when it did happen, I mostly kept quiet. I was new to the team, and I wanted their respect and trust: I didn’t want to be “the angry feminist” or to cause resentment.

Two times I broke that tenant. Once, it was a member of the team who posted a video to our group Facebook chat showing multiple young women dancing, barely clothed. I felt uncomfortable, and the next day, I raised it with him. Although he was very amicable about it, I felt thrown off, on the wrong foot: as though I had done something wrong by calling him out. Nevertheless, he graciously accepted my criticism, and refrained from posting anything sexual in nature.

The next incident was harder for me to handle. Again, the incident happened online: perhaps showing the way that men feel somehow bolder posting their sexist thoughts online. We were having a team discussion on critiquing each other. Several of the guys were enthusiastic; a few were reluctant as to how effective it could be. Then, to my shock, a member of the team (a different one from the video poster) waded in and commented something along the lines of “we’re all men, we can call each other out without our tampons falling out.” I was horrified, and this time, I couldn’t keep quiet. I told him that what he had said was offensive and unnecessary. He told me to stop being so sensitive. I told him that I wasn’t going to discuss it any further, and I turned off my phone and fell asleep.

My alarm went off at 6am the next morning, ready for a training session. As I got dressed, I talked to my sleepy, half-awake boyfriend – of how nervous I was going to meet the team, how I was worried what the atmosphere would be like, how I was hoping not to get into another argument. In the end, I didn’t need to worry: no one mentioned it, until right at the end of the training session. Another guy raised the point that it had been inappropriate (not because it was sexist, but because it could call our team into disrepute if the college found out) – I kept quiet in much of the ensuing discussion, unable to make my voice heard. Comments like that weren’t rare: that was just the most shocking one.

Even writing this, I feel ashamed. I feel as though I am betraying my sports team, the men who made me laugh in the midst of my depression and gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I feel as though I am in the wrong for calling attention to this. But I also feel like it is precisely this kind of shame that stops women from speaking out. We don’t want to be called “irrational.” We don’t want to be called the “angry feminist.” But maybe I do. I am a feminist, and I am angry, and I am tired of your patriarchal bullshit invading my time at this university.