This year, I gave up my column in Cosmopolitan Magazine, which had run for three years, and took up a weekly column in the Times Educational Supplement. As much as that was entirely the right move, I realised I missed writing about lifestyle and fashion. So below is a little reflection, from me, on health at Christmas:
It’s that time of year again, when the entire nation embarks on what essentially can be described as a collective binge-and-purge.
In December, decadence is everywhere we look – booze and treats are on special offer and every tv and newspaper advert features something dripping in custard. And by January 1st, as if by magic, the celeb fitness DVDs hit the shelves and we’re told to snap our newly lardy arses into shape because all the lazing around eating things has rendered us physically hideous.
Working as I do in education, in various schools all over the country, my relationship with the Christmas holibobs is slightly unusual. I have learned that time is the most precious of commodities, because if you can buy yourself a little time then you can do all the things which naturally lend themselves to health – exercise, quality relaxation, cooking well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep. As Russell Brand notes in his book ‘Revolution’, the wealthy tend to do these things as a matter of course because the things that should be free to all humans have in modern times become the remit of the privileged.
As such, if you’re ever going to see me a few pounds lighter, glowing of skin, fresh back from my jog whilst downing a kale smoothie, it’s going to be during the Christmas, summer or Easter school holidays. I look forward to these times not for the indulgence (although that’s good too), but for the opportunity not to live on room service, or spend at least a third of my day on a train*
*It’s worth noting at this point that at my ‘fighting weight’, when I’m doing all the healthy things for a sustained period, I’m still a size 16 (just more of a TopShop size 16 than, say, my current size of a Simply Be 16). I don’t subscribe to the idea that a healthy lifestyle automatically renders one super-slender – I believe in Health at Any Size, as one of life’s naturally curvy people.
Towards the end of the autumn term, the lack of natural light was doing my swede. I don’t understand how anyone can not have Seasonal Affective Disorder. The all-pervading gloom at this time of year actually makes me angry. I was working ridiculous hours, spending about 3 nights a week in hotels, doing no exercise other than walking and I was starting to suffer from migraines – I believe I came dangerously close to the mythical ‘burn out’.
In the past week I’ve gone for a run, paid my friend Belle, a personal trainer, to punch her for an hour (it’s okay she was wearing pads), I’ve made a dent in my new book, I’ve been for walks for no reason and I’ve reminded myself why Bowie’s Reality is such a genius album. I cannot tell you how much better I feel. None of the things I’ve done benefit the economy, or my bank balance, but they have had an immeasurable impact on my wellbeing.
I’m not for one second saying I won’t be tucking into a Christmas roast or smothering everything in Baileys (just as Jesus would have wanted). However, for various reasons I’ve been thinking in slightly different terms about how much personal responsibility we really have over our health.
As Caitlin Moran notes in her book ‘Moranifesto’ the prevailing socio-political narrative is one that praises ‘hard work’. ‘Hard working families’ is the go-to emotional appeal for most politicians and tabloids. Hard work is imbued with a kind of morality it doesn’t really deserve, because whilst a healthy work ethic is of course a good thing, working to the exclusion of everything else spells disaster for your mental and physical health. That’s why some of our ‘top’ bankers retire in their thirties.
Yet to admit this would be to encourage us to step off the treadmill and so the ‘hard work’ ideology continues to be pushed.
I recently heard an interview with Jamie Oliver on James O’Brien’s LBC show. Jamie embarked on a magnificent rant about the lack of obligation of government to limit quantities of processed sugar in our food. He cited the example of a family of 4 who have a £40 shopping budget. That family will be forced to buy ‘budget’ food, the very same food whose lack of quality is compensated for by the overuse of sugar. Refined sugar is everywhere – it’s in bread, pasta sauces, tins of beans – and we can’t blame people on a limited budget for reaching for the cheapest option.
They could of course make their own bread and pasta sauces, but that notion leads us back to ‘hard working families’ again. Most people work long hours. Who wants to come home after a hard day, utterly knackered, and spend what could have been the limited quality time they have with their kids, or their partner, or cat, or a boxset meticulously cooking meals from scratch?
Whilst I’m not attempting to feed a family of 4, I do know what it’s like to have limited choice. Often, I turn up to whatever school-side Premier Inn I’m staying at to find the only options for dinner are a Toby Carvery and a McDonalds. And whilst in summer I’ll happily pack myself a salad the night before, in the cold winter months this is less than appealing.
So when your Carole Malones, Kirsty Allsopps and Katie Hopkins’ inevitably indulge their pet hobby – namely pointing and laughing at fat people and launching into great diatribes about ‘personal responsibility’ it irritates me because if I had the income and the sort of personal freedoms I imagine they enjoy, I’d be able to attend to my health so much more consistently.
As it is, my New Years’ Resolution is to have a better work/life balance. Hitting the gym this week has reminded me how much better exercise makes you feel, even when your every instinct is to curl up with a blanket and a hot chocolate (with Baileys) to watch Love Actually (which Lindy West’s brilliant feminist analysis has ruined for me forever, btw). My goal for 2017 is to have time and options.