Another Blog About Bodies
I've discussed bodies before, and this blog once again involves talking about the human body - especially my human body. There is no gentle lead-up. I begin from the outset. If this is something that offends or disgusts you, I suggest that you skip this blog - the next one might be less graphic.
I had been swimming, and I was in the changing room. In the mirror I caught sight of a naked body standing there. There was nothing remarkable about this body. It was a man's body - that is all. I was very surprised when I shut the locker door to see that my own head belonged to this unfamiliar nude figure. Last time I had bothered to look; this wasn't what my own body looked like.
This is not so surprising to me. When I was growing up, we never really made any reference to the fact that we were corporeal beings. Bathroom doors remained locked at all times. Beach holidays meant the boys changing under towels and the girls changing underneath this toilet-tent-like garment with an elasticated neck. Both methods involved contortion and wriggling and fear that someone might be looking at us long enough to catch something pink flop out unexpectedly. There was a cognitive dissonance in how we thought about our bodies - we never acknowledged the fact that being inside them was the only place we could inhabit; there was little mention of flesh or function. Even the word 'fart' was forbidden. In fact, I don't think anyone ever passed wind throughout my entire childhood - and I am certain that no one ever 'farted'.
Changing rooms have never been happy places for me. At school, I would physically shrink behind the locker doors and get out of there as soon as possible. Nothing traumatic ever happened - as far as I can remember. I was never the victim of any changing room cruelty. We had one PE teacher who would insist on us parading into the large communal showers, and would stand there until he could guarantee that all the boys had gone through. I don't think his motives were suspicious; he also took us for maths and he probably didn't want the smell of adolescent body odour during a double lesson. Even now, I feel a bit sick whenever I go into the changing rooms. Beyond the ordeal of going to an all boys' school, the stress involved is simply all about getting naked in front of strangers.
Times have changed. My own children both know how to unlock the bathroom door from the outside. The idea of the bathroom being a sacred or private place is unknown to them. I could be in the shower, or sitting on the loo, and if one of them wants something then they see it as perfectly normal to just unlock the door and come in. The implication of this is that there is nowhere in the house where I can get some piece and quiet. So, if I choose to extend my visit to the bathroom because I want to read a newspaper article, or I'm mid way through a game of scrabble on my iPad; I have to scream at them when I hear them approaching the door as if my life depended on it. They are slowly beginning to realise - the bathroom is a place I go to when I just want to be alone.
I take both our children swimming weekly. The freedom which they display in taking their clothes off in a public space startles me. Even before I have unpacked their swimming kit from the rucksack, they are both naked. It must seem strange to them that their father always huddles behind a locker door to get changed and also always showers in one of the few cubicles with a door; they choose the open plan ones so that they can entertain each other doing whatever it is that they do - I honestly don't know as I'm far too stressed to notice, but they seem to involve a lot of splashing and noise and it earns disapproving looks from others using the changing rooms.
For our son, getting changed in a public space is a completely natural activity. At school he has to change in or out of ballet clothes at least four times a day. My feelings of shame or embarrassment are something foreign to him. He just wouldn't have time to indulge them. Also, during ballet classes, his body is under non-stop scrutiny: lines, shapes and timings are commented on constantly. When I was his age I would have crumbled under such a microscope of relentless physical dissection. Even now - especially now, as I focus on the beginning of middle-age decline - I wouldn't survive comments about how I look or the way I move. And yet our son seems entirely comfortable with this culture of physical exhibitionism and continual assessment. He has an ease with his body of which I am envious. Already I have learned much from him. While I am not nearly at his level of physical comfort and kinetic precision, I am happier living in my God-given body and taking up my rightful amount of space than I have ever been. Even though feelings of shame and embarrassment still linger, it is not nearly as bad as it once was. I wish that in my awkward and cumbersome twenties our son had been around to lead by example and show me the way so clearly. But, that of course would have been impossible.
Another Loss - This Time Weight
This blog carries a parental advisory label. If you are squeamish, sensitive or are in any way repulsed by the exhibitionist tendencies displayed in the last blog, you would be advised to look away, or stop reading now. There is also some very mild swearing. You've been warned ... Mum.
I am less of a man than I used to be. This is a literally true. Indirectly, this is a result of our son's involvement in Ballet. Long before he started at the Ballet School, I would often stand and wait for him to come out of class. The teachers would often be out waiting while the children were still in the changing room, and we would stand and chat. Ballet teachers are often young, attractive and thin - this is Fact One. I'm just putting it out there. The parents would also wait. The parents of Ballet Children are often middle age, prosperous and sit at desks all day. This is Fact Two. Between Fact One and Fact Two rests an awkward gap. Delusional as I may be, I considered myself stuck somewhere in this gap. I clearly didn't belong to the Ballet Teachers of Fact One. But, I surely wasn't a member of the parent group of Fact Two. I didn't look like them either ... Or so I thought.
Here is Fact Three: The mother of our children describes one of my most endearing qualities as having the sensibilities and preferences of a teenage American girl. Dawson's Creek, My So-Called Life and Hart of Dixie have the same value to me as Hamlet or Othello. Well perhaps this is not quite the case for Hart of Dixie - but I still really enjoy it. Please bear this fact in mind if you continue reading to the point where all three facts converge. This is going to be a long story.
It was November 2013 - I remember the event clearly. I was working away and staying in an luxurious hotel. There was a set of scales in the bathroom, and one evening I thought I'd have a little experiment - just for a laugh - and see how much I weigh. The digital number reached 90 Kilos (for stone, just divide by 6). This could not be right. The last time I weighed myself, I had been 75 Kilos. That had been sixteen years ago, when I was twenty-seven. I stood off the scales, and stood back on again. The figure remained the same. I breathed in. I made myself taller. No change. I went to my iPad and looked up the healthy weight for my height. I was firmly into the overweight section and beginning to convincingly approach the fiery red part of the graph - according to the NHS, I was nearly obese. I had never really thought about why I always needed to wear baggy clothes, and my reluctance to wear just a t-shirt in summer. It also explains that whenever I got measured for a suit, or bought a new pair of trousers, I assumed that I had some temporary bloating owing to something I'd eaten, probably oats.
I was clearly experiencing severe denial, and this is the point where the three facts converge. I looked nothing like those young healthy ballet teachers; I was definitely one of the parents. I looked at our ballet dancing son, and realised that he is going to grow taller, leaner and stronger, and I was going to become heavier, less active and even more middle aged. Thankfully, there is a Teenage American girl locked away in my heart, so I knew what I had to do. I had to start preserving my youth. It took a year. I made sure that on no day did I exceed two thousand calories, and on some days I carefully only consumed six hundred. I weighed myself every three weeks, and hoped to see a 3 kilo loss each time. I became an expert in nutrition. I know how many calories are in a piece of toast and marmite, and how many are in a baked potato and cottage cheese. I didn't deny myself sweets, but ate fewer and realised that they counted to that day's calorie allowance. On our last family holiday, I ate ice-cream only once. I still avoid pastry, white bread, anything with cream in it, and surprisingly, hummus. I eat salad every day, and make it more exciting by adding jalapeños and hemp seeds. I am wary of sun-dried tomatoes. I researched all I could about fasting and a calorie restricted life-style; and found some reasonably convincing links to Alzheimer's prevention (please see my last blog). I started to swim daily - sometimes twice a day, and now I have again began to run regularly. I'm over twenty kilos lighter than on that day in November 1993. When I look in the mirror, I am surprised by the person looking back. I appear older and more care worn. I don't notice the loss of weight.
Oprah once declared her weight loss to be the biggest achievement of her life. With all her wealth and influence, I cannot understand how this is true. I do not consider it an achievement. I find sustaining this healthy life-style irritating. The attention to detail is exhausting. I miss most the permission I used to give myself to be passionate about sweets and ice-cream. Give me a bag of gelatine-free 'Percy Pigs', and I am as happy as a different kind of pig in the proverbial sh*t. I still wouldn't dream of getting on a train without them, or the sour jelly caterpillars that they also sell at M & S. There's an ice-cream place not far from where I live where they know me by name, and I have their number so I can call and pre-order cinnamon flavour if I am going in that day. This is absolutely true, they used to make a batch just for me. I haven't phoned for a while. It feels like we've split up. We just grew apart. I still go in now and again, and I perceive a sadness in their eyes. They miss me.
When my belt begins to feel tight, I panic. This never used to be the case. I never noticed - it was always tight, especially after lunch. I'm concerned where this transformation will lead next. Will I be dying my hair to hide the grey? Simon Cowell white teeth? Spray tan? When the metamorphosis is complete will I resemble someone from TOWIE?
A couple of months ago, we were getting on the bus. Our son turned to me and said, "Dad, for a man your age, you have the most amazing posture." He's a ballet dancer in training. He knows all there is to know about posture. I ignore the bit about my age, and think about this comment. I imagine I am wearing it like a badge of pride. I'll have a t-shirt made. I'm nearly forty-five. I have "great posture". I'm so happy.
"Who wants to live forever? I get untold satisfaction from the pleasures of the feast." - Templeton the Rat in Charlotte's Web.