A Call for Kindness

A Call for Kindness | SusannahConway.com

 

This morning I sat down to write my response to this Facebook post. It’s been shared all over the place and stirred up so many feelings in me I wanted to get it all out on digital paper. But as I began writing I had that blogging deja vu you get when you’ve been blogging for as long as I have and it didn’t take long to find a post I penned last year that touched on very similar topics. Rather than reinvent my own wheel I’ve updated it to share today. xo

Lately it seems harder to avoid the media’s spewings about the perfect body. About erasing dark circles and wrinkles. About controlling what you eat. About the 50 Hottest Women in the World! About actresses who look good “for their age.” About the Beautiful People and who they are procreating with. About getting your body “beach ready.” About fatness and thinness and shades of skin colour as if the body is all there is. And the majority of the spewing is aimed at women. I’m sure there’s some aimed at men but it must be published under the cover of darkness for I haven’t seen it.

I occasionally still buy magazines to cut up for visioning and I’m suddenly noticing how young the women in the pages are. How an advert about anti-wrinkle cream is illustrated with a close-up of a teenage face that’s still been retouched. I read about actresses getting digitally slimmed and perfected in films and my heart just hurts. Even actresses themselves are talking about the myth of perfection they have to strive for.

It’s all so preoccupied with the external. If you were to canvas a group of men and women, I’m pretty sure the men would choose to be perceived as successful and the women would want to be seen as beautiful. It’s drummed into us from a very young age that girls should be pretty (external quality) and boys should be brave (internal quality). We’re quick to compliment girls on how pretty they look, on how nice their hair is, on how beautiful they are. The gender binarism in entertainment created for children is quite shocking to me — for girls it seems to be centred around appearance and getting boys to like them; for boys it’s guns and fighting and being the hero. There are exceptions, of course, but they are definitely in the minority. Yet I only have to look at my nephew to see a creative and imaginative child who enjoys “girls” toys just as much, if not more than, “boy” toys. Teaching children who they should be according to who we were taught to be doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.

We’re the most advanced version of humankind that has ever existed and we are still, at our core, animals. Despite our iPhones and internet lifestyles we’re ruled by animal instincts. Women want to attract a mate so they must look appealing to catch the attention of potential suitors. We’re most fertile when we’re young, so youthfulness becomes most desirable. On the other hand men need to show they can provide food for the children and defend us from predators. Our genes want to be replicated — it’s all about survival and our desire for immortality — and you only have to go to a bar on a Saturday night for proof of this. The continuation of the species is the driving force for, well, everything, but we humans have these big brains in our heads and that’s when it all gets more complicated.

Reading Annick’s Facebook post this week made my blood boil, I won’t lie (and do take a moment to read it of you can). The way manipulative marketing and sales techniques are still used to sell to women is unacceptable. YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL! YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL! That’s all I hear and see and it almost makes me laugh because being younger wasn’t actually better. As far as I’m concerned, being OLDER is better. Being OLDER is hard-won wisdom and confidence and calm. Being OLDER is knowing I can survive, knowing I can look after myself, better understanding my place in the world. Being older is so much more valuable and should be revered for the honour and privilege that it is.

I don’t imagine sales people are taught to sell to men in the way they sell to women. Make him feel like the winner he is? He’ll buy it. Make her feel insecure? She’ll buy it. This was so prevalent in the 50s, the era of the perfect housewife and her concern over feminine hygiene, but why haven’t we evolved beyond this? Perhaps in a few generations’ time we will have. We’re still living with the influence of the last century. My maternal grandmother was born in 1899 and I hear echoes of her Victorian values reaching me here in 2016. We’ve experienced so much social change in the last 60+ years, the effects are still filtering through. I’m no social historian (clearly) but has there ever been a time when society has changed so radically — and so fast?

I spent a large chunk of my young life believing how I LOOKED was more important than anything else. The surface of my body was how I measured my worth and most of the time I found it to be lacking. I hadn’t yet found the self-awareness needed to look deeper than my skin and begin healing my hurts, so I became obsessed with the pieces I could see with my eyes. All of this external preoccupation wasn’t directly caused by the media but it certainly lit a fire under it. As women we were told we were second class for so long it got absorbed into our collective psyche. And now that bras have been burnt and we edge towards a society filled with equals? We’re hit again in our tenderest of places — we’re judged on how we look by the harshest critics of all: ourselves. Has there ever been a more effective way of keeping people down? We’re so busy worrying about how we look there’s no time for anything else. We could probably take over the world if we weren’t stressing about fitting into our skinny jeans.

And even then, when we reach a place of body acceptance, there’s someone ready to tear it down. Looking (foolishly, perhaps) on YouTube recently I came across a slew of 20-something women vloggers sharing “look books” of outfits, make-up tips and stories of body acceptance that made me smile so big until I read the comments. The hatred that was being spewed there was unreal. The vloggers’ crime? Being plus sized. The men commenting were quick to remark on how unattractive they found the vloggers (“you’re so fat you’ll never get a boyfriend” — because that’s what we’re taught we should worry about, after all), but even women were leaving comments tearing down these women who were sharing genuinely positive messages. The vitriol and spite was unbelievable. Similarly, Annick’s Facebook post has garnered thousands of comments, yet after reading only a few I saw this one from another woman: “I think…… You should have definitely bought the cream. And saved us the sanctimony of this ridiculous article.” Whatever happened to sisterhood?

So much of this comes from deep insecurity and fear. I’m not happy with myself so I’m going to act out and dump it on someone else (does that ever work? No.) Somewhere, somehow, the idea was first hatched that the fastest way to get something from someone else is to make them feel bad about themselves. You’re not successful enough? Buy this. You’re getting old? Buy this. You’re not pretty enough? Buy this. You’re overweight? Buy this. If you were to visit from another planet you might wonder why half the population has a body that apparently needs to be fixed. Too hairy. Too fat. Too lumpy. To small. Too flat. Too smelly. Too wide. Too much. And whose idea was it to pick one type of beauty and decide that everyone should strive to achieve it? Why the hell are we all still colluding in that?!

I’m using big brush strokes here, of course, and on the other side of this there is so much amazingness in the world. Possibility and freedom, knowledge and progress. Art and music, inspiration and joy. And love, there is plenty of love. I see it and I feel it and it fills my heart. And yet there are still too many mornings when I look in the mirror and make a split-second judgement on my attractiveness. It’s as automatic as taking my next breath. Since hitting my 40s the unspoken judgement is most often “I look tired” even if I feel rested, and though I no longer voice it, I can still feel the chilly backdraft of “not good enough”. I honesty can’t imagine what it would be like to live my life without giving a second thought to my outward appearance. A first world problem to be sure, but one that every single woman I know struggles with. Every single one.

The older I get the easier it is to see what’s really important but that doesn’t mean I’m now magically immune to wishing I looked “better”. I don’t believe we can rewire our thinking to the point where such desires are completely erased, but I do think we can hold the light AND the dark of who we are. Awareness is where it’s at. I am aware of my desire AND I know what’s more true for me. I can be gentle and loving with the part of me that still believes I should look a certain way AND celebrate the fact that I have a fully functioning body that houses a beautiful soul.

At our core I believe we all just want to feel safe. To feel loved and accepted for how we look, how we express ourselves, how we move through this world and how we spend our time. We want to do our best for ourselves and our loved ones and to have that be enough. We’re ALL learning to navigate this world using the tools we were taught. As sentient creatures we’re still so very early in our collective development. We understand how precious life is and yet we still kill each other. We still wage wars over an unseen man in the sky. We’re still so unbelievably self-destructive, like toddlers who put their fingers in electricity sockets to see what happens. So maybe it makes some kind of weird sense that we still make lists of who’s the Richest or the Most Beautiful as if those things have any bearing on how to live a worthwhile life. We are still learning. We’re only just graduating from evolutionary kindergarten.

I truly wholeheartedly believe that if we were all kind to ourselves, the world could change overnight. Love is fantastic, compassion and empathy are wonderful, but it’s kindness — such a gentle simple thing — that, as Stephen Fry once said, dwarfs them all. Kindness is powerful. When you do something for someone else out of true kindness you feel an inward smile, and when you extend that kindness to yourself? It’s like self-healing on a cellular level. If we can all start practicing radical kindness towards ourselves I believe it would be impossible to leave a mean comment for another soul on the internet. Or attempt to make someone else feel crap about themselves just to sell some face cream. If we could all think kind thoughts about the person we saw in the mirror each morning, maybe we’d no longer be able to kill a fellow human being just because they were in any way different to us.

It’s a place to start, non?

Comments (11)

On opening to love (again)

On opening to love (again) | SusannahConway.com
As this is the second time I’ve done this — replied to a letter from a reader with a blog post — it might just be the beginning of an occassional series. Sometimes I have more to say than a quick email reply can hold. Turns out I have a LOT to say about this particular topic…

__________

Dear Susannah

I am alone for 8 years now, and last Christmas I decided to start looking for a partner. It did not last: after two nights out I realised I was not attracting men, other women were so much more beautiful than me, and most important, I didn’t like the superficial atmosphere and people discussing shallow subjects. In my years alone I had started to appreciate myself, love myself, and after those two nights I started being nervous again, and strangely, I started feeling like something was missing in my life (prior to that I had succeeded in seeing myself complete and enough). So I stopped going out and stopped dating and now I feel better, but this way, how can I meet someone?
 
Michelle

Dear Michelle

I feel your pain, honey. I believe to be contentedly and consciously alone — single in a world that prioritises coupledom — we have to shut our hearts down juuuust a little. Not a lot, mind. We still love our family, our friends, our selves, our pets, our passions and our purpose, but in order to not lose our minds when yet another wedding invitation arrives or another acquaintance announces her pregnancy, we have to power down the “relationship” portion of our heart. It’s protection — and a sanity-preserver.

So when we feel ready to get back out there and find our mate, we must open our heart to possibility again, and that hurts. It only takes a little knock to want to shut down and declare “it’s not for me”. But it’s like going back to the gym after a few months away. Your muscles ache for days because you’re out of practice, but after a few sessions you ache a bit less and muscle memory kicks in. It gets easier. The aching is less severe (but still there if you’re doing it right).

It’s the same with our hearts.

We crack them open again and they ache. We put ourselves out there and they ache. We get shot down and we ACHE. After a few knockbacks we have a decision to make: Do we trust our heart’s resilience or do we shut back down and stay safe? I did that 18 months ago after a big disappointment and decided to take a break from dating. I consciously powered down the relationship portion of my heart and sank back into my relationship with me. Wisest thing I could have done.

So here I am on my third attempt at opening my heart to love. The received wisdom seems to be that he’ll show up when I least expect it — but as I say to friends, I’ve been least expecting it for the last 10 years! Working from home makes it harder to bump into eligible men so once again I’ve turned to online dating as a way to get some practice.

And yes, for those of us who are used to spending quality time alone, stepping out into social situations filled with small talk and superficiality can be a challenge. Why are we even bothering, we wonder to ourselves, as yet another evening is “wasted” in the company of yet another mismatch. We could have been at home reading ;-)

And yet. Maybe it’s all the meditation I’ve been doing, but this time around I’m approaching dating with a much calmer and philosophical head. I’m staying open to meeting different sorts of people and managing my expectations better than ever. For example: last week I managed to write myself down off the ledge in just under an hour. Dating triggers all my vulnerable stuff, as it does for most of us, but as I’m feeling more centred I’m able to notice when the old stories flare up. Rather than believe they are the Truth I’m able to shine light on what’s really going on — FEAR. It always comes back to fear.

After journaling out the stories and my reactions I kept writing, and it was this next sentence that I’ve now underlined ready to be employed the next time this happens:

“Remember who I AM, not who I am not.”

It’s so easy to wish we were someone else. That we looked different or “better”. That we were more out-going, or quieter, or whatever it is we mistakenly think we “should” be to be more desirable or successful or accepted or [insert desire here]. I have done so much work around this, and yet it only took a few weeks of online dating to be swept up in the should stories… until I realised what I was doing and stopped myself.

The right person for me will fit me as I am, not me as I wish I was. He won’t be perfect, he’ll have his own stories and issues, but somehow we’ll help each other feel more like ourselves.

Last night I helped my step brother set up his dating profile. As we filled out the details and did a few cursory searches, the conversation turned to what he’s looking for in a partner. My bro is a sweet caring guy who works hard, keeps fit and loves his family. He definitely wants to have kids and feels ready to be in a relationship again. Reading through one girl’s profile we noticed she was into the theatre.

“Do girls expect you to do all that?” he asked, “because it’s not something I’ve ever been into.”

“And that’s okay!” I said. “She’s just not the girl for you.”

We found other profiles that were a better match, including one girl I INSISTED he write to, she sounded so great. Hearing D share his concerns was such a gift, because it reassured me that men worry they won’t measure up just as much as we do. “You’re looking for the girl that fits YOU,” I told him. “And I’m looking for the guy that fits me. We only need one.”

And that, I feel, is the key. We’re not looking for a string of Mr/Ms Rights. We’re looking for that one person who feels like home — and who doesn’t make us feel crazy. Even better: their crazy complements our own.

So the challenge remains to dial our expectations down while staying wide open to possibility. We have no control over how and when we will meet our match but we can make sure we’re in a good place in ourselves when they arrive. Every date is an invitation to meet another human being where they are in their journey. I continue to learn more about what I want in a partner — and what I don’t want, too — with every date I have. Every time I want to close back down I think to myself: “Open heart! Open heart!” and picture a rose opening in my chest. I may have to do this several times a day when I feel impatient with the process.

I accept that there will be some discomfort and I know that it will ultimately be worth it. I know I can survive rejection, heartbreak, disappointment and pain. I know that I am deeply happy on my own. I also know that by opening myself to a new relationship I will find my world expanded in ways I’ve forgotten are possible. I welcome that with my whole heart.

So that, dear Michelle, is how I’m surviving the dating game. I’ve been on some lovely dates with some great guys who might not ultimately be a match but it was still fun to get out the house… and I wish that for you, too. Play the long game, knowing that you’re going to have to kiss a few frogs and endure some stilted conversation along the way. There will be disappointments and dramas, missteps and mistakes, but remember that we are here to experience life as fully as we can, and this new-fangled path to love is a key part of it.

Trust that your guy is looking for you too, and that the only way you can meet is by bravely taking your open heart out into the world. Trust that it will be worth it.

Yours from the dating trenches,

Susannah xo

The real inner circle

The real inner circle | SusannahConway.com
I always know I’ve been spending too much time online when the chatter in my head is not my own. I’ve been umbilically attached to my computer since I discovered blogging back in 2006, and while having access to this extraordinary global connectivity has been truly life changing, as an introvert with hermit-like tendencies, it’s far too easy to feel like I’m interacting with the world when in fact I’m hiding out behind the screen “researching”.

The internet is a noisy place. On days when I feel vulnerable and porous, this is what being online feels like:

Outside noise | SusannahConway.com
As the highly scientific diagram from my journal shows, it’s like being boxed into a tiny square while  ricocheting in all directions. It’s disempowering and draining and makes me doubt myself unnecessarily — a self-perpetuating cycle of crapness. I’m well aware that no one is to blame for any of this other than myself. It’s not so much what I’m consuming online — it’s more about choosing to do it when I’m not in the right headspace. That’s when it becomes toxic.

On the days when I feel centred and on top of my game, being online can be incredibly inspiring and motivating. On those days I feel less inclined to see what everyone else is doing and just get on with my own creative work. I look after my heart emotionally and digitally. In fact, I don’t have to wait until I feel centred to do this — I can centre myself by remembering (and practicing) the things that connect me back to me:

The real inner circle | SusannahConway.comI drew this diagram as the antidote to the first (mad drawing skillz, I know). Once I’d identified the unhelpful things outside of myself I jotted down everything that truly fed my insides — the stuff I DID want to consume savour. The circle represents my inner world and I get to choose what’s inside there.

Some days I forget to tap into the circle but lately I’ve been paying closer attention to the pattern of centred days and porous days. In her book, The Optimised Woman, Miranda Gray shares the four different phases of our monthly cycles and how we can use them to our advantage. I knew there was more to my month than just PMS days and non-PMS days but it’s so helpful to get really specific. Like knowing that Day Five of my cycle is the day I get REALLY down. It happens every. single. month. and knowing this means I can prepare for the dip and plan accordingly. Ditto that block of five days when I’m on creative FIYAH!

Being self-employed helps, of course, but even just knowing what’s going on helps me navigate the difficult days. Awareness is the first step towards making meaningful adjustments — and frankly checking out the moon’s cycles helps too. I’ve never been much for astrological things, but I can’t deny how synched I am to the big white ball in the sky.

This year I’m making a conscious effort to get out the house more. To be around actual living human beings more. To seek out nourishing community. To experience the world through ALL my senses, not just my eyes. And part of this nourishing mission is knowing when to reach out and when to retreat. Working WITH the rhythm of my cycle, not against it.

How I learned to live in my body

How I learned to live in my body | SusannahConway.com
“It saddens me to think that trip was the last time I truly felt connected to my body. In the in-between years there was a love that set me alight, his eyes, his touch accepting, loving every part of me, a gift I have never fully understood until now. I look in the mirror and wonder who could love me like that again. And that’s when I hear it, the call to be my own lover, with my own appreciative eyes and touch, to see my body as whole and perfect exactly as it is. It was easy to bask in his gaze, to feel at ease in my skin because he adored me so, but it didn’t come from within me. It was not of my own making. I mourned for his touch as much as I mourned for him, but all these years later it’s my own acceptance I crave now. Relying on another to make us feel good only works as long as they are here: better to find it in yourself.”

— From This I Know, page 105

The words above were written sometime in early 2011, no doubt while I was munching on a bar of chocolate. After a couple of years of creating my business and not wanting to leave my desk — so much to do! — I’d put on a considerable amount of weight. At the time I chalked it up to aging. I was conscious of how I was eating more to “give myself energy” but didn’t cotton on to the fact that it wasn’t possible to burn off those extra calories just by thinking non-stop.

The chapter in my book that deals with the body is the one that feels most incomplete to me because I was still at the beginning of that healing saga. I was at my heaviest, I was exhausted and I thought I had to just put up with it as I slid, inelegantly, into my 40s.

Now I know this wasn’t the case at all.

My path back into my body makes sense to me as I reflect on what’s happened since then, but it’s still a pleasant surprise to discover I really do live in my body now. After a lifetime of disembodied living, I now inhabit every square inch of myself. The bits I like, the bits I like less — all of it. It’s all me. It’s all I have, in this lifetime, anyway.

How to get back into your body? I don’t have the definitive answers and anyone who says they do needs to be regarded with suspicion, quite frankly, because it’s different for each of us. All I have is what feels true TO ME so I’m going to share the following timeline with the understanding that you are capable of finding what feels true FOR YOU. Of course, breadcrumbs and signposts help in the quest, so maybe there’s something here that sparks a line of enquiry for you…

— 1973 – 2005. Lived quite unconsciously in my body. Wished parts of it were were thicker/narrower/flatter. Had a slew of digestion issues but never worked out how to fix them. Outward appearance was very important; inward appearance was largely ignored. My preferred form of exercise was sex with someone I adored. Bereavement put a stop to that.

— 2005 – 2008.
Drank all the wine. Smoked all the cigarettes. Slowly began putting life back together. Connecting with my body was last on the list — had to find all the pieces of my heart first.

— 2009 – 2011. Created a business without meaning to and had to learn how to run it with integrity and love. Basically didn’t leave the house for two years and got my groceries delivered. Ate all the food. Wrote a book.

— Spring 2012. Started dating and had heart trampled on. Lost appetite for a while. Started smoking again (definite low point).

— Got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired all the time. Hated that I couldn’t walk up a hill (Bath is very hilly) without getting out of breath. Went to Morocco with friends and discovered the discomfort of inner thighs chaffing against each other in the heat. This had never happened before.

— Decided to start going for long sweaty walks in the park. Dreaded them but something forced me out the door every time. Exhausting but occasionally enjoyable, especially when the sun was out.

— Bought some girlie dumbbells off Amazon and started lifting them when I got home from the sweaty walks. Began to see a bit of improvement in my arms. This was encouraging.

— Summer 2012. Went to North America for 3 weeks on my book tour. Was so out of my usual routine when I got home I finally felt ready to move back to London. It was time.

— Autumn 2012. Travelled to Italy and then back to the USA and despite all the glaring signs I did not realise I was sliding down into depression. I did far too much that year. My poor under-loved body was not able to keep me afloat.

— October 2012. Moved back to London and sank into the depression. Took me three months to realise what was happening and look for help. Went back on antidepressants and fought my way back to the surface.

— January 2013. Started making some big changes, albeit slowly and quietly. Found a therapist I liked and began working out with a personal trainer. On a whim I cut out gluten and discovered this is what had been fucking me up all my life. Within days my body felt less like my enemy and more like a cohort. This was definitely a turning point.

— Started noticing that when my therapist asked me where I felt something in my body — an emotion, a feeling, a reaction — I wouldn’t be able to give her a definite answer. Got curious about this.

— June 2013. Wrote a post called The exercise-hater’s guide to loving the gym. Started to enjoy feeling strong and having more stamina. Bought new exercise clothes and felt confident enough to walk to the gym in leggings and a vest.

— Autumn 2013. More dating. More vulnerability. More disappointment. Decided to get braces and go to the doctor to discuss why I was experiencing so much pain in my abdomen. These two things, seemingly unrelated, were sure signs I was listening to, and looking after, my body. It’s around that time my meditation practice began in earnest.

— January 2014. Turned out the fibroids I’d had diagnosed many years ago had grown and were now a problem. Got referred to a specialist and awaited my appointment (god bless the NHS and it’s insane waiting times *ahem*)

— May 2014. MRI scan showed my fibroids had taken over half my body. Slight exaggeration but that’s how it felt. They’d been growing for all those years but it was only now that I could hear what my body had been telling me.

— Summer 2014. I read something about how we are embodied souls and a lightbulb went off in my (no longer disembodied) head. I finally understood that my soul does not exist outside of me, somewhere “out there” but is embedded into every single cell of my body. My body is temporary, yes, but it is wholly me while I’m here. It became clear how every gym session has been grounding me back into my body, how meditation was helping me sink deeper inside my own flesh. When my therapist asks me where I feel something in my body I’m able to give her answers — she notices the change in me, too.

— Summer/autumn 2014. Spent five months photographing London for my next book. It was utterly exhausting but there’s something about all the steps I took that mirrors the path back to myself. There’s no way I’d have been physically able to take on the project two years ago.

— November 4th 2014. Smoked my last cigarette. I’d only been smoking one or two a week but my body had had enough. Haven’t had one since. Feel suitably virtuous.

— January 2015. After a lot of waiting, but oh so perfectly timed, I have open surgery to remove 14 fibroids weighting one pound in total. Despite the pain and discomfort — or maybe because of it — I have never loved my body more. I marvel at how it can heal itself. I swear I will never take it for granted again. For better or for worse, this is the only body I have. We are a team.

— February/March 2015. Healing slowly, listening carefully. It’s impossible to overeat when I’m so full of stitches and scars so my eating habits have been shifting. I realise that lightly cooked vegetables suit me better than raw. Suddenly I’m noticing how dairy makes me feel like shit (and completely bloats me out). I’m enjoying eating simply and my body responds by letting me know what it prefers. And yes, I still call my body “it” but that’s okay. I trust the wisdom of my body, wisdom far beyond anything my narrow mind could conjure on its own. NOURISH is indeed the perfect word for this year.

— The future. A yoga immersion. Reiki I. More enquiry, more listening. More kindness, more compassion. More giving myself a break when I need it. Less expectation. More love.

***

If meditation feels like a line of enquiry for you, come explore The Sacred Alone with me xo