When Calorie is The C Word

Women for Independence tweeted recently that they wanted to hear thoughts about food.  It makes sense.  ‘The domestic is the political’, as the saying goes and it’s a saying that needs to become overused and clichéd because it’s so damn true.   The more I think about it, the more I believe that everything that goes on in our homes and heads is politically linked.  The more we connect the ideas of home and Holyrood or the House of Commons the more we increase the understanding that political engagement is something we can exercise to influence things for the better, particularly in a relatively small country like Scotland.

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So here it is from me, you can provide the Food Glorious Food soundtrack from Oliver yourself. Or, you can (please) take it from my head where it’s played on loop every time I’ve thought about writing this post in the last fortnight.

I’ve been mulling over what my relationship with food is.  I came up with a few things; allergies, and hormonal conditions that need balanced with nutrients sprung to mind for starters.  How my family does the food shop came into my thoughts too.  But the main thing I kept coming back to?  The thing I kept trying to avoid thinking about so I could concentrate on easily quantifiable schizzle?  Well, that was an encounter that threw an axe head between my experiences of food and had a huge impact on how I feel about and discuss food and self image today.  It was an encounter that was emotional and I was hesitant about going there.  Yet… since it kept coming back to me I knew it was valid.  Then, the more I thought about it without kicking it away, the more I realised the emotions that are side dishes to food are a narrative we need to reconstruct to challenge ideology that limits woman in how they view themselves and are viewed by others in terms of their political (and domestic) impact.

Quite a few years ago I had a friendship group that I thought was pretty much perfect.  Three interesting women with different lives and outlooks crossed my path.  Thanks to some synchronicity in our weekly routines we soon found ourselves meeting once a week.   It felt positively Sex and The City and, fresh from being at home with pre-schoolers, I was happy for a sassy new highlight in my weeks.

Then came food – goddammit  – and the good times and diverse chat took a turn I wasn’t expecting when we agreed to make time to meet weekly for lunch.  The problems arose from the fact that I was not on a diet and they all were – permanently.  At first there was a jovial, bantery acceptance of the fact that I would always eat more than any of them at a lunch.  Then there was the triangle consensus between them to support each other in a plan to exercise more and eat less – I wasn’t there that day but was told of it much later.  In fact, in preparing for a big night out the plans extended to eating nothing but salad leaves and simply drinking water.  For days.  I was shocked and said as much, repeatedly, saying firmly but as non-confrontationally as I could, ‘count me out. Completely.’

Then there was the fact that we (they) seemed to have simply stopped talking about anything other than weight, food, exercise, ‘perfect’ bodies and diet cheats.  I had nothing to say on the matters.  In all my other friendships we talked about politics, ideas, the world, stories from our pasts, kids, our hopes, our dreams, work, relationships, learning, music, the universe, cake, clothes, art, spirituality…. and now here I was in conversational territory that was alien in its focus on just one area of self flagellation.  I was genuinely confused about how the same point could be made again and again and capture interest and emotion.  The conversations were leaving me blank and hollowing me out.  There was a vast irony in this that I didn’t see at the time; I was overweight and feeling good.  Everyone else at the table was a size 10 and feeling not good enough.  The confident women I’d met had, it turned out, been bluffing all along.  Worse, they’d assumed I had been too.  I was the odd one out.  Or, had they all just brought this out in one another and magnified it?  I couldn’t figure it out.

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Things got acutely strained the last time we met for lunch when, despite my consistent stance in the months before, my lunch was taken away from me halfway through the meal because, ‘let’s face it, you’ve had enough’.

The quick round up from there is that save some awkward exchanges we haven’t had lunch (or coffee, or drinks, or basically anything much) ever since.  It’s been a lot of years now.  They could never see what they did wrong and what they believe apparently works for them.  I could never get past having been overruled about my food, my body, my self-esteem and my need to talk about a gazillion things.  Those things are red line for me.  Nobody gets to tell me what I should change about myself unless I ask for their opinion – not overtly, not subtlely, not through words, not through behaviour or side glances.  We can discuss concerns, sure, but not if they’re based on vanity and someone else’s ideas of how I could appeal to them more.  That stuff is ridiculously less than helpful.   It’s something I feel even more strongly about since my son was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine).  Regardless of what the covers of magazines and billboards tell us all, there simply is not just one body type, shape or form that is beautifulThere are limitless variations on beauty.  It’s a label that absolutely everyone is entitled to give themself.

For all the flag waving, self-loving feminism in what I declared at the time and in that last sentence, the whole thing deflated my self esteem like a stealthy puncture.  The sight of that plate being removed from beneath my face, my fork and knife still in my hands and the sound of those words hitting my ears has replayed in mental slow-mo more times that I want to admit.  I felt embarrassed, for a while, that I’d found myself beautiful and happily excluded from dieting and body-hating only to be almost bludgeoned into it by how society supports the heinous notion that every woman is a deep down self-hater who wants more than anything else to be skinny, even if it means she’s hungry, tired, stressed, neglecting her bones, internal organs, muscles or the neurons she needs to stay strong.

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I’d thought at some point the conversation would switch back to other stuff.  I’d thought I could keep the concepts of ‘my relationship with my friends’ in one part of my brain and ‘my friends’ shocking self-hatred’ in another.  I’d had no idea whatsoever that at some point those two filing cabinets were going to collide all over the space between them and contaminate me with horrible thought-worms that would root around whispering, ‘you probably are really ugly and unattractive because people you trust certainly think so’.  But the thing is I was also always going to fight for the thought that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, by my standards, when I looked in the mirror I didn’t see something repugnant smiling back.  I saw a person who valued so many other things so much more than she valued any thoughts about any size, age or conformity.  Dare I say it (society loves to hate women who value themselves so I’m out on a limb here), I also saw beauty.  I was raised that way by a mum who knew herself to be beautiful and yet was never on the cover of Vogue.  I fought my way back to that woman and have had to chalk up the bad experience to, well, experience.  Different strokes for different folks.  I need food for fuel and food for enjoyment and relaxing with people I adore and who adore me.   Sometimes I need food as a bonding prop at a meeting or a get together.  Breaking bread together is a good thing for connecting.  I will not be coerced into seeing it as something that makes me ‘naughty’ or ‘really good’.  Because I’m a self-determining adult.  Because I am a good person, regardless of my dress size.  A stick of celery, sixty five doughnuts, a gazillion runs and all the scales in the world have fuck all to do with that.

So there’s some of my relationship with food – the bit with the massive learning curve blip where I realised that context and echo chambers really affect self-esteem and self-actualisation.  I’m not sure what I could’ve done to have made things work out more happily with those friends. I live and I learn, hopefully.  And I still love lunch.

From food notes to footnotes….

I’ve been trying to find out who first came up with the phrase, ‘the domestic is the political’.  I think it might have been Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote (the frankly amazing); A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792).  Do you have any insight on this quote?  I’d love to know more about its origin.

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On Dream-catchers, Boomerangs, Tiny Islands, Fear and Futures

If anything was going to drag me out of blog hiding, little did I know it was going to be the Scottish Independence Referendum.  I remember when I first heard about it, a little over two years ago.  I was unclear what it would achieve.  I guess if I’m totally honest I still am.  Regardless of which way the vote goes, neither route’s lit up like a Christmas tree or marvellously easy to envisage without a leap of faith.  Would this referendum, I wondered, create a notion of whether or not the country might want independence or Devo Max?  Or, would it actually decide something real, like staying in the Union or scrutinising the first past the post voting system so we’d get a better representation of bums on seats MPs and MSPs?

Bit by bit I untangled the gist of it.  I’m not quick on the uptake, generally speaking, but I am thorough in getting to it.  It used to be the other way round but I perused garden centres much less then and had no concept I could ever be wrong about anything.  Ah, the wonderful arrogance of youth, fresh from the arms of a self-esteem guru mother and free of any direct responsibility for others.  But, as is also now typical of me, I digress.

Back to the point.  It gradually became clear to me that in this referendum malarkey there would be just one question and two possible answers; should Scotland be independent, yes or no (and absolutely no maybe or Devo Max me please, baby).

And it was Devo Max I wanted.  It was Devo Max I wanted ever since my proper political awakening in 1997 when my Mum burst into my room at 6.30am on the second of May to blurt to my twenty-one-year-old self in my single bed that the Tories were finished in Scotland.

I got out of bed and we jumped around my monochrome, 90s bedroom singing ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ and pulling stupid smiley faces.  Not because we particularly loved Labour or Tony Blair mind, but because we felt entirely muted by Thatcher, Major, Edwina Currie et al.  We’d felt like the baddies stuck in the mirror prison Phantom Zone in Superman – banging away on that unbreakable glass rhombus along with everyone else in Scotland who didn’t have land or title, seen but not heard, vaguely detectable on far stretch radar, totally forgettable on an everyday basis.

At last, we felt, Scotland had a speaker attached to our hifi and we might actually get to hear the audio rather than just see it looking awesome on the graphic equaliser digital display.  And, post 97, we kind of got that.  Scotland gradually got some more power.  Holyrood got built amidst controversy over millions upon millions being spent on bizarre sticky things stuck to windows and grey concrete.  And, to my surprise, I saw a building emerging that I loved; it was everything the establishment and government I’d known to date had never been.  It was exciting, surprising, fresh, daring and a bit like a Banksy next to a Rembrandt.  The vast merits of the old were undeniable in their wonder.  Yet… the new was a bit cheeky, hugely thought provoking and fit for purpose as well as art.  The water pools outside projected calmness, absorbing and diffusing some of the surrounding white noise of change grumblers by throwing out new reflections.

Above all, the new thing was relevant in a way the old thing never could be.

Since then though, it feels like the output from Scotland’s 90s hifi has been patchy at best with intermittent bouts of the wire falling out completely, exposing radio silence.  We’ve been back in the Phantom Zone fairly regularly, most noticeably when other people’s votes decide our government.  It’s an odd state of affairs given that in principle we’re a democracy.  It’s a bit like being brought a life affirming coffee and Danish pastry only to remember you have a cold and won’t be able to taste anything.  You get some benefit but the experience isn’t immersive.  You kinda also know that ultimately the caffeine, sugar and fat are bad for you even though you’ve been conditioned to want their transitory highs then struggle to ignore the following lows.

Something else happened in 1997.  The Isle of Eigg over and off Scotland’s west coast  removed itself from long years of shambolic patriarchal private ownership by staging a community buyout that irrevocably changed the possible answers to the question; who owns Scotland?

The whole thing on Eigg would doubtless have completely passed my Aberdeen life by had it not been for one fact – the man I fancied like no man I’d fancied before lived on Eigg and worked with me in Aberdeen.  I’d been out to Eigg with him and other friends.  We’d partied on Eigg and I got to know people who lived there.  I’d come across a way of living I’d never even known still existed the year before.  Some people had no electricity in their homes.  Others had no TV or phone.  Mobile phone coverage and the birth of texting was exploding on the mainland but out on Eigg many people were still keeping a larder cold all year round rather than owning a fridge.  Above all, what I learned in that time was something I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t really appreciated at all til then; Scotland is heart achingly, tear jerkingly, soul stirringly beautiful.  Getting to Eigg, driving on roads I’d never seen and through glens I’d only vaguely paid attention to in films, I had a hot jab with the branding iron that is the reality of growing up and realising the world’s bigger than you.  Scotland’s beauty got me.  I fell in love with Eigg as well as one of its gorgeous residents and there was no turning back from there – their combined influence changed not just my heart but also my psyche.  Reversing that process would be impossible; so far reaching was the impact on my neurons, their stored Kodak moments and the aftershocks of self-awareness melding to more world aware epiphanies too.

In the year before the Eigg buyout in June 1997 I watched bits of the fight that a huge amount of people on and off the island said wouldn’t be won.  People argued and never without passion.  Voices were raised, doors were slammed and phones were clattered back onto receivers with a lot of cursing.  The stakes were high.  If things went wrong no-one’s place on Eigg was assured, everyone’s connection to the island had the sudden potential of being threatened, spoiled or cut abruptly off.  In a community already living in a reduced fashion, the fragility of the potential for success often felt palpable – as though the island’s very soul might start a lamenting song for its people from a beach, a bluebell wood or a chunk of foreboding basalt rock.

The media reported little and large accounts sporadically about what was going on with Eigg.  Politicians, activists, Eigg fans and reporters turned up and made their personal investments or withdrawals depending on their understanding of the islander’s plight.  I stood back and said little; I felt I understood so little and was terrified of some of the huge and voluble characters in discussion on the island.  The campaign to save Eigg from private ownership was well underway, those at its heart had no time or energy to stop and explain its evolution to me or anyone else.  I knew that just being there, having an occasional third row seat and seeing it unfold, I knew that was history in the making, that was privilege in the extreme.  As the campaign moved towards its climax, it became clear that whichever way it went, nothing on Eigg would ever be the same again.  Right up until the very last minute, no one could call it.  I remember wondering if future trips to the island would feature a community or a place made more still and wild by becoming a nature reserve.

Worse, I could see the imminent threat of Eigg once again becoming someone’s beautiful private playground, only observable from a boat or long lens, the kapow of distant shot in the air and the audacity of rich men’s moneyed aura at a drawbridge pier.

My view from the sidelines was often narrated by Lesley Riddoch, a journalist and political activist who was on Eigg a lot helping lead the buyout campaign.  Lesley had (and still has) a strong voice in the national press, informing everyone then who didn’t know about Eigg’s trouble why it was important in terms of history, present and future.  Lesley’s explanations on and off the island let me understand the issue but other commentators lit fires of doubt, too.  Could a wee, tiny island really take on a legal system that favours the rich?  Could they ever win?  Could they raise enough money to buy it and sustain it?  These Eigg folk were wonderful and colourful but some of them could talk a fair amount of shite as well, in my previous opinion; there were unmitigated amounts of dream-catchers around the place after all, at least 4 in every home, and I was prejudiced about dream-catchers and what they said about their owners.  Could power and responsibility really come in this ramshackle uniform?  Didn’t it have to be wearing a suit, carrying a laptop and knowing what the FTSE 100 was, like in Aberdeen?

I projected my own identity crisis and lack of cohesive vision onto Eigg.  Eigg projected back to me and anyone else who stood looking perplexed that it would do things exactly as it did things and to hell with conforming.

Good on you, Eigg.

Years later, Eigg’s gone on to not only be successfully owned by the community in partnership with The Scottish Wildlife Trust and The Highland Council, but also to be incredibly well organised and resourced too.  Dream-catchers all round and yet now an incredible sustainable energy grid for all, a growing community, prospects for work on the island, phenomenal entrepreneurship.  Goods and services being sent to the mainland before now boomerang back as pay packets.

Eigg hasn’t just made a success of its land reform journey and battle; it’s become an emblem of how determination and hard work mean more than fear, convention and red tape.

Eigg has become the spearhead other communities crushed by feudal ownership have used to pierce a hole in their own suffocating atmospheres.  Sixteen years later everyone can look to see that not only has Eigg done it, Eigg has done it against all the odds and surpassing even their own hopes and dreams for what they set out to achieve.  In fact, Eigg’s done it with bells on and six cherries on top. Every single one of us who doubted them has had to put their hands up and say we were wrong.

The impossible was, after all, possible.   A beautiful lesson learned.

You can see how all of this is relevant to what’ll happen in nine days time.  Here I am again observing history – here we all are.  Here’s Lesley Riddoch saying, again, that it’ll be fine to make the leap and we just need to work hard and dig in.  Here are the people around me again – some Scots, some English, some French, German, Welsh, Danish, Irish and a little bit of everything.  The majority of them full of passion and fight and emotion and desires – half saying yes, half screaming no, everyone aware the stakes are so very high.  Some – few – are disinterested and disengaged.  They feel the referendum has little to do with them so they anaesthetise themselves from it with silence and changing of the subject.  Here I am this time not living in Aberdeen but in Edinburgh, the iconic castle visible from my street and Arthur’s Seat constantly sticking up somewhere in my peripheral vision, letting me know whether I’m east, west, north or south of that beautiful Holyrood parliament building lying at its feet.

Here I am, again not knowing what the future will be and here I also am with a voting slip in hand but this time I have an opportunity, a right (and many would say an obligation) to be involved and cast my vote.

The only thought that’s been consistent in my decision making process is that I am beyond frustrated I can’t choose Devo Max.  My voice about that has been put in the Phantom Zone.  George Osborne’s removal of a third option from the ballot paper means come the 18th of September those myriad thoughts of everyone choosing to use their vote will all be squashed and simplified down one of two funnels – the yes or the no.  I believe that most of us who vote will take our opinion and fold it very small indeed to reduce it to one tiny little word to go off and be counted. After the counting, those little, weeny words representing what each of us wanted (or least opposed) will pop back out like Jack-in-the-boxes, opinions streaming forth and unfolding multi-dimensionally once more, a cacophony of thoughts, frustrations and hopes masquerading as a bold sentiment or belief.   Ironically, this situation may force another one way or the other vote in the near future – the Tories or UKIP.  The Deep Blue Conservative Sea or the Purple tinted Devil of Farage & co.  Like the referendum, it is a hell of a concept to pull the head around and an even more difficult decision to call in terms of possible consequences and impact. 

Each of our own unique backgrounds mean we come up with our own unique opinions.  I’m not going to tell you what to vote.  If there’s one thing I hate more than dream-catchers it’s evangelism about anything.  Evangelism assumes the person it’s trying to convert is missing information, wisdom or insight.  Evangelism wants the unconverted to be like the converted.  Evangelism says ‘if you’d be more like me, you’d be better’.  What’s to love there?  It’s not respectful or particularly complimentary to anyones  abundant intelligence.  All I can tell you is this is my story and it’s largely formed by listening to other people and assessing experiences as objectively as possible.

We each have to find our comfort zone in an uncomfortable zone.  I feel the time’s come for me to be a little quieter and to just be for a few days, like those pools outside Holyrood and the never absent tide on my favourite Eigg beach; seeing all the action but focusing on the constants, rather than fearful rhetoric about sharks and shallow waters.  Finding my vote then letting it go, being ready to work hard in whatever outcome boomerangs back from us all.

Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear your comments. You can find me on Twitter @betamother too. 

You can read more about Lesley Riddoch on her website at: http://www.lesleyriddoch.com/ and follow the Isle of Eigg Trust on Twitter @isleofeigg or learn more about the island at: http://www.isleofeigg.org/