Posted in Life philosophies

The kindness of strangers

If I contacted you out of the blue and asked you to help a friend of mine – pick them up from the airport, say, or let them stay at your house for a night or two – what would you do? How about if I told you that somebody I knew was going to be in your city and needed a friendly tour guide – would you volunteer? If you said yes to any of this theoretical questions, there’s a strong chance you’re from the Southern Hemisphere.

I lived in England for nearly 14 years before returning to New Zealand, and sometimes people would ask me how life in the UK was different to life back home. When trying to explain the subtle differences between the two places, one thing I often mentioned was the casual friendliness of Kiwis – the way that they would chat to you in a shop without provocation, and ask you if you needed help, if they saw you on a street corner, looking perplexed. The example I always used was the degree to which people would help out strangers. For Kiwis, somebody ceases to be a stranger as soon as you’re introduced to them – whereas you could know a British person for many years before they’d even want to invite you home for dinner. The British tend to value their privacy very highly, probably in part because they live on a fairly overcrowded island.

Last Friday Laura, our most recent au pair, left us for an eight-week trip around the South Island in a camper van. She was due to travel with two other German girls, one of which had apparently organised the camper van. However, Laura discovered – after flying to Wellington to start the trip – that this other girl was (at best) a serial fantasist: after unravelling a complex skein of half-truths, it was revealed that she no longer wanted to embark on the South Island trip, and there was no camper van booked. Shocked, and not knowing what to do, Laura caught the Inter-islander ferry to Picton as planned, but sent me a message on the way to let me know what had happened.

I didn’t really know what to do either: we don’t have any family in the South Island, and very few friends down there, and certainly none in or around Picton. Laura reassured me that she’d managed to book a bed in a hostel for that night, but didn’t have any idea of what to do next: she couldn’t afford to travel for eight weeks using buses and staying in hostels, and she couldn’t bring forward the rest of her trip because the next leg of it was a six-week visit to Australia with friends who’d be arriving from Germany, and then on to Bali as she travelled home. She still wanted to see as much of the South Island as possible, and was prepared to help people out with child care or other work in exchange for board and lodging, but she wasn’t sure where to start trying to organise that kind of trip with no notice. It was awful. When you’re a host mother of au pairs it’s a bit of a delicate balancing act between giving them the freedom and independence of adult life, and providing help and support when they need it – after all, this is somebody’s daughter, usually living away from home for the first time.

So I asked for help from a group of women I’d never met. I have the great luck to be a member of a Facebook group set up for women who are both writers and mothers. This group is the best thing on the internet, and I spend 95% of my online time there. It’s full of hugely accomplished and utterly inspirational women – ranging from occasional bloggers like me to published authors and highly credentialed professors and academics – and it’s a group that runs on compassion, understanding, and support. For those of us lucky to be members, it’s our go-to place when we need bolstering, inspirational, or practical help with our projects.

I posted about Laura’s predicament and asked if the South Island-based members could offer any suggestions. This group of brilliant and amazing women responded with offers of help: one member volunteered to pick Laura up from the hostel the following morning and have her to stay for a few days, and several others replied with their own offers to host her as she travelled around the South Island. By the end of the evening she had enough options to easily fill the next six weeks. We set up a separate group for Laura’s trip, and she’s been able to contact women directly and organise her own itinerary. She was astonished and so grateful that this group of people she’s never met – I’ve never met – would be so unquestioningly kind and helpful.

It was lovely to see the values of our group in action. Laura is such a wonderful girl, and she didn’t deserve to miss out of a great trip because of the warped behaviour of one horrible person. I was chatting to my kids earlier today and I told them that kindness is the most important thing in the world – the only thing that really matters. I really believe this. Too often people judge us based on how much money we have, or whether we fit modern standards of beauty, or even whether our personal set of skills and attributes fit what others describe as ‘intelligent’. In so many cases we’re judged based on things we can’t control, and didn’t do anything to earn. And so many people get a kick out of being thoughtlessly cruel to others – especially strangers online – presumably because they don’t feel good enough about themselves to realise that they can be important and clever without it being to somebody else’s detriment.

We need to teach our children about the importance of focusing on the things that really matter – the things that we each can influence: how we choose to treat other people. Kindness is the most important thing, and the way in which we treat others should be the fundamental basis upon which we are judged. Kindness attracts kindness, which is why our very kind au pair thoroughly deserves the outpouring of help she’s received.





Posted in Life philosophies

What is wrong with people?

Earlier this week a woman I know online posted on Countdown’s Facebook page to ask why the supermarket continued to use the terms ‘girl sprinkles’ and ‘boy sprinkles’ to advertise certain brand of cake decorations, even though the manufacturer of the sprinkles had long ago stopped marketing its products in such an antiquated way.


This woman’s post was perfectly polite and civilised – so gentle that you’d barely even describe it as a complaint:

“Hi Countdown. I was intrigued to see boy and girl sprinkles in your Hobsonville store the other day. How do these work? I sprinkle the ‘boy’ in the air and a boy appears? Or a girl, if I sprinkle the suitably pink version? Or do I sprinkle the ‘girl’ ones onto my boy to turn him into a girl and vice versa? Could you explain? I’m curious about the relationship between sprinkles and gender. Maybe, just maybe, it’s old fashioned everyday sexism. Perhaps you could revise your labels.”

Nearly four thousand people decided to respond to a complete stranger’s post with howls of derision, calling into question the woman’s intelligence, life skills, and general attitude. Many people claimed that she was complaining about a ‘first world problem’, and plenty of them also remarked that they’d love to have as much time as she had, to be able to use it by complaining about things that they didn’t like. Yes: with no obvious sense of irony, people took the time to complain about somebody else having sufficient time to complain. And several people also chose to further vent their spleen by sending the woman insulting and abusive private messages, just in case the deluge of abuse on her original post hadn’t sufficiently made clear their displeasure that she dared to ask a question of COUNTDOWN. Not Countdown, for God’s sake! How can anybody ask a question of a supermarket?! It really is shocking, isn’t it?

I just can’t understand what is wrong with people. What would possess you to read a stranger’s comment on a supermarket’s Facebook page, and hurl abuse at them? And actually, what would possess you to casually read a supermarket’s Facebook page in the first place? If we’re talking about people with too much time of their hands, how about those who spend Monday night browsing Countdown’s Facebook page for things of which they disapprove?

In case it needs to be said (and apparently it does): there is no limit to the number of things that a person can care about. We can care about issues like the unnecessary gendering of cake sprinkles, and also about other issues. I care about cake sprinkles, AND about the awful phenomenon of people abusing total strangers online! Truly, I’m amazing.

It’s fine if you don’t care about how supermarket sprinkles are labelled. There are thousands of things that I don’t care about, but here’s what I don’t do: I don’t abuse total strangers if they have different cares to mine. I just get on with my day, not caring. More people should try it. And to be crystal clear: I couldn’t care less whether anybody reading this post has strong feelings about the fact that this woman chose to communicate her concerns to Countdown, or what she said, or how she said it, or whether you think her concerns are valid. I’m concerned about the feral response she received from the general public.

It should also be noted that anything – ANYTHING – that involves people challenging gender norms, however gently, attracts a vast amount of shit from the general public. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it. After all, 99% of the world around us remains resolutely gendernormative, particularly with regard to raising children. Finding a ‘girl’ top that isn’t pink or purple remains a cause for celebration for those amongst us who actually like the idea of our kids having a choice about what they wear. And it’s nearly impossible to find any underpants for boys that don’t feature bloody dinosaurs. In other words, there is no imminent danger of society failing to separate boys and girls for arbitrary reasons. In light of that, is it really so confronting if an occasional parent speaks up and asks that we don’t keep needlessly gendering things?

The trigger-happy response of weirdos on Facebook to anything gender-related also attracts the attention of the wider press, which is unfortunate. Stuff chose to cover the story of a woman making a gentle enquiry about sprinkles and the subsequent torrent of abuse she received. This keeps alive the story of that woman’s online abuse, and because Stuff shares their story links on Facebook and doesn’t moderate the resulting comments, they’ve ensured that a whole new group of halfwits who missed out last night can now join in and add their abuse. Heaven forbid there should be a single halfwit in New Zealand who doesn’t get to tell this woman how foolish she is, for caring about something that matters to her! And yay for the responsible journalism of Stuff that has enabled it.

The one good thing that came from their coverage was Countdown’s acknowledgement that the woman’s query was totally valid, and the situation she described will be remedied. Countdown’s spokesperson said:

“We absolutely agree that these shouldn’t be gendered. We are in the process of changing the ticketing as quickly as we can.”

This calm and reasonable response runs slightly against the views of Dr Bodo Lang, ‘University of Auckland marketing expert’, who thinks shoppers are too quick to complain on social media. I’m not a ‘marketing expert’, but I’m fairly sure companies have Facebook pages precisely so customers can interact with them, just like this mother did.

And I know that most of these people will justify their bullying awfulness by claming that this woman ‘brought it on herself’ by saying something. Apparently, if you choose to speak up about anything these days, it’s open season. This is what’s known as victim-blaming. Are we OK with that, as a society?


Posted in Life philosophies

We all have drama

Today’s blog post serves as a bit of sequel to the post I published yesterday. I’d talked about allowing ourselves to acknowledge that feeling unhappy is usually a rational response to unhappy circumstances, and not a state that we should suppress.nIn addition to realising that it’s largely futile to feel bad about feeling bad, I’ve learned during the past ten years that it can sometimes feel like other people’s trouble can make it difficult to talk about our own difficulties.

For example, how can I complain about the behaviour of my neurotypical preschool-aged twins, when many parents cope with far greater challenges because their children may be on the autism spectrum? What right do I have to find it hard to juggle university and motherhood, when I’m doing it with the full support of a loving spouse, an au pair, and a wide network of amazing friends and family members? Other mothers have tackled tertiary education as sole parents, with very little help and support. And let’s be even more macro about it: do any of us, living in peaceful, stable, developed-world countries, have any right to complain about anything, given how awful life is for so many people in the world? The hackneyed phrase ‘first world problems’ is universally employed to dismiss the rights of most of us with electricity and internet access to complain about anything.

I’ve concluded that we all have the right to find our own lives difficult. Although it is always very important to maintain perspective – and being cognizant of the challenges that other people face helps us to do that, I think – we also shouldn’t discount our own problems, just because other people might have bigger problems. After all, if my life is utter mayhem, and yours is merely very busy, does knowing that my days are busier do anything to make your daily experience less busy? Of course not. The two things are entirely unrelated. We can both find our lives busy: we’re not competing in a Busy-ness Olympics, with only one medal available to the busiest person. I’ve had many, many friends who have told me that they’re finding life hard, but who have then hastily continued to say that, of course, it’s nothing compared to what I’m doing. But again, it’s all perspective. I can’t hack life as a stay-at-home mother. The challenges of that life are different to mine, but they’re not less than mine. I may have to stay up very late to write essays or complete assignments, but I also get to leave my house every day and have conversations with adults, and focus on things that don’t involve Paw Patrol or sandwich fillings.

We should grant ourselves the right to acknowledge our own dramas. Failing to do so can make people really unhappy. I know this first-hand: when my babies were tiny I felt terrible that I found new motherhood so grim, given that I’d spent four years trying to conceive. I had also been in a Facebook group of women who were all struggling to conceive, and in many cases had dealt with numerous heartbreaking miscarriages and failed IVF attempts. I am not typically inclined towards guilt, but I did feel really bad about not enjoying every moment of being a mother, because I knew exactly how lucky I was to be a mother at all. Misguided people who responded to my cries for help by telling me that I should enjoy the baby stage probably had no idea how awful it was to hear that, when I was already feeling dreadful about not revelling in the experience.

This stage passed when I realised that life with baby twins was really hard, and that recognising this didn’t mean that I wasn’t also aware of being lucky to have children. Both things were true. And I could find my life hard while still feeling empathy towards those who hadn’t yet started their families. I can even find life with children difficult, while remembering that some people have lost their children – a tragedy I can scarcely even contemplate. I am certain that experience would finish me, and I marvel every day at the grace and resilience of the parents I know whose children are no longer with them. Here’s the thing: my life could be immeasurably worse, but that recognition tends to happen in retrospect, after the tantrum has passed. It’s bloody difficult to call to mind that perspective when your four year old is shrieking at you and you’re snapping and shouting back, and they’re crying, and you’re feeling like the world’s worst parent.

We all have drama. We are all allowed to have drama. Yes, we should be mindful of the struggles of others, and do what we can to help those who have greater problems than ours (whether that involves cooking something delicious for a stressed friend, or setting up a regular donation to a refugee charity, or whatever else we can do to help people on both a micro- and macro-scale). Yes, we should never stop counting our blessings, when the daily storms of our own lives abate a bit and we have capacity to take stock. But we should not dismiss our own problems, simply because others have it even worse. We should reserve a tiny bit of the compassion we extend to others, and grant it to ourselves.



Posted in Life philosophies

It’s OK to feel bad

Today’s blog post talks about one of my personal life philosophies: that it’s OK to struggle when times are tough. Rather than giving ourselves permission to acknowledge that our feelings might be a completely rational response to a difficult situation, too often we seem to compound their struggles by feeling bad about feeling bad.

A few years ago I was struggling to deal with some potentially life-changing news affecting somebody very dear to me (and, by association, me). I spent months trying to come to terms with the situation before accepting that I was feeling worse and worse, and needed help. Fortunately for me, help was available via my employee health coverage, so I arranged for a short course of sessions with a local counsellor.

At my first appointment I poured my heart out, telling the counsellor what was going on and how I was feeling about it. And rather than trying to reassure me that everything would be OK (which was what most well-intentioned friends and family members did), he simply agreed that it was an awful situation. And then he told me that I should be feeling scared, stressed, unsettled, and overwhelmed, because I was dealing with a scary, stressful, overwhelming, unsettling problem. In other words: it was totally normal to find this particular moment in my life difficult. This was such a straightforward message, and I’m sure some people might not have found it comforting to hear expressed so bluntly, but it was the perfect feedback for me. It gave me permission to stop adding ‘guilt at finding life such a struggle’ to the emotional burden I was carrying around. I can’t pretend that I felt better overnight, but getting this explicit permission to accept and acknowledge the reality of my situation certainly helped me to move on. I still had hard days, but they were never quite as hard after that.

I had a reminder of this life philosophy when my twins were newborns. Life with two babies was astonishingly hard, particularly during the ‘witching hour’ that, in our house, lasted from 5pm until 10pm virtually every night of the twins’ first twelve weeks. At our standard six-week paediatrician’s appointment I tearfully explained hat one of the babies had to have colic or reflux and probably needed medication, because the behaviour we were dealing with was so awful and unsettled. The paediatrician, a big bearded South African chap, very kindly explained to me that what I was describing was completely normal: this was just what newborns are like. His advice? Give up. Stop trying to keep to a routine – instead, make dinner, put the babies in a wrap to have a protracted evening snooze, eat, watch TV, and leave the whole bedtime attempt until later in the evening, when they might be ready.

I’d started life as a twin mother feeling that I might be able to handle it, largely because everybody reassured me that following a routine was key to success. I loved routines in my professional life, so I was sure I could transfer that approach to parenthood. The shock of discovering that babies aren’t robots and can’t just be programmed according to what you’ve read in a parenting manual was a terrible shock to my system, and the stress of trying to keep to a routine hugely contributed to my struggles. Being given permission – by a medical professional – to do less was a revelation. Again, it didn’t result in a miraculous change in my circumstances, but it did help me to find some equilibrium (and ensured that we actually ate dinner occasionally).

As I’ve mentioned before, I sought help earlier this year to deal better with the challenges of juggling university and family life. In that case, I was able to devise strategies that could actually improve my situation (which isn’t always the case with other problems, including the ones I’ve already described), but the benefit of the help was not just the proactive nature of the discussions: it was also the recognition that my situation was hard.

Sometimes, life is tough. Our babies won’t sleep. Our children are challenging. Our jobs or university lives run us ragged. We grapple with health problems, either affecting ourselves or those close to us. We have awful flatmates. We have relationship dramas. I’ve learned the hard way that the worst thing we can do is to fight against the perfectly understandable feelings that occur as a reaction to tough times. When you’re having a hard time the last thing you should be doing in putting on a brave face, or privately beating yourself up for struggling. Be kind to yourself. Do what makes you happy. Talk to a professional, if that’s what works for you (it definitely works for me). Vent to friends and family members, and assure them that they don’t need to solve your problems – they just need to listen. Remember that it’s OK – it’s normal – to find life difficult, so just go with it. This too will pass.


Posted in Feminism, Life philosophies

Grey hair, don’t care

Today’s blog post explains why – in 2010, when I was 35 – I stopped dyeing my hair.

There are two reasons:

  1. The minor ‘opportunity cost’ reason; and
  2. The more significant ‘colouring grey hair is anti-feminist’ reason.

Opportunity cost

I stopped dyeing my hair because I no longer wanted to spend at least a couple of hours every four weeks in a hair salon. I also didn’t want to pay for colouring my hair on a regular basis (and didn’t want to pay for cheaper dye and try to do it at home – I am pale, my hair colour was brown, and I was insufficiently dextrous to manage the job without dyeing my ears and having strange dye markings on my forehead and neck).

If you’re disinterested in feminist discourse, this would be a good place to stop reading. If you choose to keep reading, but then find what follows wildly upsetting or offensive, please feel free to start your own blog, write a rebuttal, and send me the link.

Colouring grey hair is anti-feminist

I believe that, whether we choose to accept or acknowledge it, ALL women living in the developed world are viewed according to a very narrow set of appearance standards, and we all follow those standards to some degree.

This does not make us ‘bad feminists’: it makes us people who may choose to challenge some standards but not others. This can be because we have internalised some of the appearance standards so successfully that we genuinely believe that we choose to prefer a certain look entirely independently of the societal expectations placed upon us – and it’s very hard to test that, because you’d need to raise somebody entirely free of the influence of appearance standards, which is virtually impossible. Signs of this thinking can be seen a lot when you do what I did, and stop colouring your hair: I’ve honestly lost count of the number of friends who have told me that they think my hair, which must be at least 40% grey now (and ‘grey’ is a euphemism – my hair is going white), looks great, but that they can’t imagine doing the same thing because their hair won’t look as good as mine. Actually, that’s a lie: virtually everybody I know with whom I’ve ever talked about my lack of hair colour has made that comment, so I could pretty much add up all of the female friends and family members I’ve spoken to in the past six years, and give you a precise figure. These women genuinely don’t believe that they will be able to ‘pull off’ grey hair. And it’s true that, in some lights, my greying hair looks sun-bleached, or even deliberately highlighted. But let’s be honest: you don’t have to look at it for long before you realise that it’s just grey hair:


It can also be that we are well aware that we routinely accept appearance standards, despite knowing that they are unfair, unrealistic, or unattainable. There’s no shame in that – we are social creatures, and it’s important to us to be accepted and recognised by our broader tribe. However, I believe that we shouldn’t be disingenuous about it. We can acknowledge that we feel pressure to look a certain way (even if it’s self-inflicted pressure, because we’ve grown up believing that only smooth legs are attractive, or that wrinkles are ugly, and now we can’t de-programme ourselves), but that we continue to met the appearance standard regardless. Or it could be that we’re steadily trying to de-programme ourselves, one element at a time. It takes confidence to do that, and some women never obtain it in sufficient quantities to reject even one of the appearance standards. There’s nothing wrong with that – but, again, I think it’s a good thing to be cognisant of what’s going on.

The appearance standards aren’t a new phenomenon: women have been expected to look a certain way for a long time, and certainly long before the proliferation of mass media that we now often hold accountable for the appearance standards against which we’re judged. In virtually every example, appearance standards have developed from what heterosexual men consider to be attractive at the relevant point in time. It has been a few centuries since both men and women felt obliged to wear makeup, elaborate wigs, and restrictive or excessively decorative clothing in order to appear fashionable or attractive. Men recognised that time spent on adorning themselves was time that could be better spent on any number of alternative pursuits, and men’s fashion and appearance standards became simpler. However, the standards for women continued, and still continue.

Some examples of the appearance standards that apply almost exclusively to women include:

  • Maintaining an artificially low body weight;
  • Wearing makeup;
  • Removing body hair in order to have smooth skin (instead of to avoid a beard);
  • Wearing restrictive or impractical clothing;
  • Using cosmetic surgery or other procedures to avoid or correct signs of ageing; and
  • Dyeing grey hair.

These points highlight the key theme of the appearance standards applied to women: the value placed on women appearing as young as possible, for as long as possible. Men are allowed to age gracefully, but women are encouraged by a wide range of subtle and blatant practices to view any physical evidence of ageing as intrinsically unattractive. There’s a reason for this, of course: historically men have valued women primarily as the bearers of their children, and as we age we obviously lose the ability to conceive. Younger women are also traditionally more malleable and less likely to contradict men.

So, when we wear makeup to make our complexions look smooth, with the flushed cheeks and darker lips that mimic sexual arousal, we’re emphasising youth. If we shave our underarms, legs, and bikini lines, we’re harking back to the time when we were younger and didn’t have as much body hair. Younger women are often slim, and as we get older we tend to gain weight (particularly after having children). I believe that all of these statements apply, even if we don’t fully appreciate that these reasons are why we feel compelled to wear makeup, remove body hair, or stay as slim as possible. And the blatant attempts to conceal ageing through cosmetic procedures and the cover-up of grey hair really don’t need any further explanation.

I think it’s obvious why this is all anti-feminist: feminism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ Appearance standards that apply almost exclusively to women are, by definition, anti-feminist. Obviously, there are some exceptions – there are some men who choose to colour their grey hair, or use cosmetic surgery or other procedures to combat the physical signs of ageing. We live in a rabidly anti-fat modern society, so men also may feel pressure to view their body fat with disgust (although you don’t see many men around who are maintaining an artificially low body weight). And many younger men take a great deal of pride in their general grooming and personal appearance – but the effort required will almost always extend no further than having a good haircut, and shaving regularly. Recently, shaving has become less of an issue in light of the hipster fashion for beards, that most masculine of facial accessory.

For the most part, the men in our lives spend a tiny fraction of their time devoted to their appearance, particularly when compared to the time spent by the women in our lives. What confounds me is how – even in an age where I honestly know of very few women who, when forced to set aside their prejudices against the term ‘feminist’ and whatever undesirable political or social connotations it holds for them, and instead just acknowledge its true meaning, wouldn’t qualify as feminists – so many of us keep obeying the appearance standards. We don’t question why it is that, for example, men’s underarm hair is totally normal, but women’s underarm hair is regarded as ‘dirty’ or ‘gross’, and cultures where women don’t shave under their arms are ridiculed for it. Do women have special magical underarm hair that becomes more offensive when they sweat? Or is it simply because any normal bodily odours are regarded as ‘unfeminine’, and woe betide any woman that doesn’t value and emphasise her femininity?

And pertinent to the topic of colouring grey hair: why is my 72 year old mother unwilling to stop dyeing her hair, because she feels like it will make her look like an old lady (despite being an absolute legend who got her law degree in her fifties and is still practising, helping families in crisis on a daily basis), while my 72 year old father has snow white hair, and not much of it left, but wouldn’t dream of concealing it? My mother is quite justified in her concerns, in my opinion: in a professional context people possibly would make negative assumptions about her competence and mental acuity, based on their perception of how older women typically think and behave, but those people would almost certainly not make the same assumptions regarding my father. My mother has a young face, and with dyed hair she does look younger than 72. Like I said, it’s a man’s world.

So, I stopped colouring my grey hair because I was fed up with imposing yet another appearance standard on myself, and, in particular, an ageist appearance standard. I refuse to accept the idea that greying hair is ugly, or that looking older is a bad thing, or that getting older is a bad thing. We systematically undervalue older people in society, and it is a disgrace. One day soon it’ll be our parents who are being disregarded and seen as sexless, witless, and irrelevant, on account of their age – and then, before you know it, it’ll be us.

Like I said earlier, many women with strong feminist sensibilities are on a de-programming spectrum when it comes to appearance standards – and many more of us are entirely and unhappily aware of the appearance standards, but choose to keep obeying them. I don’t colour my grey hair, but here’s what I still do:

  • Prefer to be a body weight that is on the light side of healthy for my height;
  • Wear makeup on occasion (although I’ve stopped wearing it at all on a day to day basis);
  • Remove ‘excess’ body hair (in the summer, at least); and
  • Make at least some attempt to wear flattering clothes, most of the time.

The above list is why I have no judgement for anybody who chooses to get Botox, dye their hair, live on a permanent diet, put their makeup on as soon as they wake up each morning, and remove all hair south of their eyelashes. Also, I have no judgement because it’s none of my business what other women choose to do to their bodies. However, I do harshly judge women who feel that it’s appropriate to criticise other women who have rejected certain appearance standards (and this includes consumers of magazines that gleefully highlight any apparent step away from the appearance standards by celebrities who may have gained weight, or neglected to get a face lift after their thirtieth birthday). My suggestion is this: rather than making unpleasant remarks about somebody’s hairy legs or whatever, we should probably wonder what we can do to gain the same amount of body confidence that the hairy-legged woman possesses – after all, she’s turned her back on something that most of us are still enslaved by. And any woman who negatively comments on the physical signs of ageing in another woman needs to worry less about what people look like, and more about what people do.

Posted in Life philosophies

Abstaining and moderating

The year is only a few weeks old and already I’ve recommended Gretchen Rubin’s fantastic book Better Than Before to several people who want to change their lives in small and meaningful ways. I really enjoyed this book when I first read it in 2015, and again when I reread it recently: Rubin explores the science behind forming and maintaining habits, reasoning that establishing patterns of behaviour as habits makes it easier for most people to achieve daily goals, because they no longer have to expend much mental energy on choosing to behave in a certain way. Her rationale is that, like we don’t need to put any effort into brushing our teeth twice a day – it’s just a habit – we can develop similar habits in all areas of our lives.

A key element of her book is what she describes as the Four Tendencies: four personality profiles that shape how people respond to internal and external expectations. They are: Upholders (who find it easy to meet their own goals, and the broader ‘rules’ of society); Questioners (who find it easy to meet their own goals, but only worry about other people’s rules if they believe that they’re sensible and relevant); Obligers (who always strive to meet other people’s expectations, but sometimes struggle to meet their internal goals unless they can externalise them – like having a running partner to ensure that you stick to a running plan); and Rebels (who don’t want to be tied down by their own goals, or anybody else’s rules. I really urge you to seek out this book and learn more about it all (and also listen to Rubin’s podcast, which is excellent, and follow her on Facebook, and read her blog). Better Than Before is full of useful strategies for establishing good habits (and dropping bad habits), tailored to work with your ‘Tendency’.

Today I want to talk about an idea that Rubin discusses, because it resonated with me when I first read Better Than Before, and continues to make sense to me. Essentially, she challenges the accepted wisdom that attempting to totally give up something – particularly in the case of trying to eat healthily, for example – is doomed to fail, and that moderation is key. Rubin’s response to this idea is that moderation works for some people, but that for many others total abstinence is easier. Her rationale is that abstinence actually takes far less mental energy than the effort required to decide how much moderation is enough. Here’s an extract from Better Than Before that explains her perspective:

Within the study of habits, certain tensions reappear: whether to accept myself or expect more from myself; whether to embrace the present or consider the future; whether to think about myself or forget myself. Because habit formation often requires us to relinquish something we want, a constant challenge is: How can I deprive myself of something without feeling deprived? When it comes to habits, feeling deprived is a pernicious state. When we feel deprived, we feel entitled to compensate ourselves – often, in ways that undermine our good habits.

I realized that one way to deprive myself without creating a feeling of deprivation is to deprive myself totally. Weirdly, when I deprive myself altogether, I feel as though I haven’t deprived myself at all. When we Abstainers deprive ourselves totally, we conserve energy and willpower, because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster.

“Abstainers” do better when they follow all-or-nothing habits. “Moderators”, by contrast, are people who do better when they indulge moderately.

Abstaining is a counterintuitive and non universal strategy. It absolutely doesn’t work for everyone. But for people like me, it’s enormously useful.

As an Abstainer, if I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating: How much can I have? Does this time “count”? If I had it yesterday, can I have it today? In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character remarks, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” and it can be a relief to give in, to end the tiresome mental chatter about whether and why and when to indulge. But I’d discovered, abstaining cures that noise just as effectively. I’m not tempted by things I’ve decided are off-limits. If I never do something, it requires no self-control to maintain that habit.

This was a bit of a revolutionary concept for me, but it totally appealed to my Upholder nature: I’ve always enjoyed giving stuff up, because I like reminding myself that I control my body and my life, and am not in thrall to anything or anybody else. So, last summer, I gave up my drug of choice:


And I discovered that Rubin was right: it was FAR EASIER to just never eat sweets, rather than endlessly trying to moderate my sweet-eating (I really love sweets). I didn’t go all hard-core and “I QUIT SUGAR!!” about it (in other words, I wasn’t religiously reading lists of ingredients when buying loaves of bread), but I stopped eating things that were obviously full of sugar: sweets, chocolate, soft drinks, fruit juice, cakes, biscuits, and all desserts and puddings. I also tried to eat less fruit and more vegetables.

This was a hugely successful strategy for me: I lost four or five kilos, which was nice, but more importantly I gained a huge amount of energy as my blood sugar stopped climbing and plummeting in response to what I ate. I found that, as time went by, my typical eating each day involved a lot more protein and vegetables, and that it was no hardship at all to eat in this way.

But… during 2016 my university year was horrendous, and I started comfort-eating sweet stuff occasionally. And then a little bit more often. And then nearly every day. And then daily. And it confirmed for me that I am not a Moderator: I love sweet food too much to be able to control myself. ‘A bag of sweets on Friday night’ would turn into “Oh – we’re going to the cinema, so I’ll have my bag of sweets on Tuesday this week”, and then Friday would arrive and I’d have that bag of sweets again – plus a hot chocolate nearly every day, and biscuits if they were around. The outcome has been the return of those four or five kilos I lost, and while that’s not a drama (I’m a healthy weight at either end of that particular equation), I know that my body doesn’t function well when I eat too much sugar: I don’t sleep well; I get more tired; I have digestive issues… really, sugar IS a drug for me, and not a good one.

So I’m on my third day of my return to sugar abstinence, and this time I’m determined to stick with it. The whole situation has reminded me of something else Rubin has written in the past, about how having a slip-up is sometimes necessary in order to remind you about what works for you. And if you’ve also struggled to control your consumption of something, maybe you might want to try the Abstaining approach too, and see if ‘deciding not to decide’ works for you.