When I was seventeen, there was a Guggenheim exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I went there with my art class, and returned, time and again. It was a window into the world of my art text books. Here they were. I stood as close as I could to Brancusi’s, Calder’s, Dali’s, Moore’s and Mondrian’s. I breathed the air next to them like I might catch some ions of genius leaking from the very spirit of each work. I stood back and squinted at them, turned my head and observed them in their minutae. It seemed to me, a spotty gangly teenager in a distant antipodean gallery, that these foreign artists were the master race; their works a gift from the greatest muse of creative expression. The soul of life itself.
The Joyce Girl is Annabel Abbs’ inspired story of an Irish girl in the 1930’s. She lives in Paris, right in the midst of the bohemian art world of my Guggenheim heroes. A dancer, dreamer and artist, Lucia lives in a straightjacket world of obligation and overwhelm. She is the daughter of James Joyce, celebrated writer. She is known historically as integral to the production of Joyce’s lengthy work, Finnegan’s Wake. She is caught in the undertow of her father’s work, sublimated by her roles as dependent daughter and co-dependent muse. Her own genius, obscured first by the narcissism of her father, despised by her mother and brother and later destroyed by the inept machinations of mental asylums, is explored first hand. She is finally given voice by the author Annabel Abbs in this novel. Heavily based in the facts of Lucia Joyce’s life, we see first hand the struggles of a troubled girl trying to make sense of herself.
“An ephemeral arch of colour, swaying and dissolving. Flashes of imprisoned light. Trembling loops of movement. A wind washed rainbow, my bands of colour shivering and melting. I crouched and twisted. Needles of rain, spiked and hard. I stretched and spread my fingers, soft rays of warm sunlight. I was a swathe of luminous colour. I was the gold-skinned weaver of the wind. Sun-spangled sovereign of the cosmos” -Annabel Abbs ‘The Joyce Girl’
I loved many things about this book. But, oh, Abbs’ descriptive passages of dancing! She is expert in describing this artform with a keen sense of the visceral experience of dance. I realised that my legs and feet were flexing and moving as I read, and I do love a book that transcends the brain barrier. I enjoyed Abbs’ turn of phrase; sometimes, I felt she was touched by a Joyce-ian way with words which added depth and relevance to the experience of reading this book. It was immersive.
I so loved the characterisations of some of the artists I had studied as a teenager. That world of Bohemian Paris, where artists came for freedom and connection, was painted with a vivid hand. I felt like I had stepped inside my Guggenheim exhibition. That I could walk alongside Alexander Calder and listen to him expound on shape, form and movement. It was transporting. And when the time came to explore the deeper psyche of Lucia, Abb’s sensitive writing captured the child Lucia with care. It was emotionally difficult to read, but a necessary and bittersweet journey with Lucia through the dark travails of her mind.
Most of all, I loved that Abbs gave Lucia’s story an audience. I doubt that before reading this novel, I would have read Carol Loeb Schloss’ biography of Lucia Joyce’s life, To Dance in the Wake. But now, I will. Lucia is a woman of history, of art, of feminism, whose story should be told. Abbs’ story of Lucia; childhood trauma, repressed memory, subjugation, dysfunctional family relationships, unrequited love, unfulfilled ambition and incarceration… I am certain is an echo of the many women whose independence and freedom were stolen during times when mental institutions were dangerous places and Psychology a fledgling discipline.
My own Great Grandmother was institutionalised when her children were very small. Now we assume she had undiagnosed postnatal depression. But I wonder who she really was, and now there is no way of knowing. These stories should be told. These voices should be heard.
I recommend The Joyce Girl. Thank you Annabel Abbs for writing this important novel. I will take it with me on my own metaphorical dance of independence and freedom.
I’ve been doing some writing for another publication. I can’t publish it here because it’s exclusive to them, but if they choose not to use it, I’ll be popping it up for you to see. I enjoyed writing it so much!
It’s all about curves and confidence, and the circuitous path it took my soul to find a way for both to exist simultaneously in my world. When I was younger, I had no idea that curves would eventually be such a useful part of my self-esteem. I had no idea that the things I hated about my body would become things that I celebrate. How did that happen? How did I get from self-loathing to self-loving?
I had a massive reality check in the experience of living with Pandysautonomia. A gift of sorts, in the way that all the most memorable life learning can be simultaneously painful, difficult and uplifting.
It made me realise that there are body issues which transcend the petty concerns of comparison. It made me feel the sting of all the time I had wasted on self-criticism, there in front of the mirror, thinking about all the ways people would disapprove of my dimensions. So ridiculous. Mum used to tell me when I was a teenager, that most of the time, other people wouldn’t even be thinking of what my body looked like. That it was a kind of vanity to assume they were. I was convinced there must be others like me. That they were studying every other like-aged-girl to see what was ‘normal’, hoping that they could become it by studying it in all its minutae. Hoping to find the magic code for ‘cool’ so we could programme ourselves to be so.
I couldn’t be. I was far too tall and generous of beam to ever fit the narrow-hipped, slim legged archetype of the eighties fashion teen; those oversized tops and legwarmers only looked good on petite little things. I didn’t yet understand that being a six foot tall woman required a certain level of bravado. That you need to own your height, your wiggle. That the most uncool thing of all isn’t wearing a home-made dress, but being a mouseling in a giantess’ body. I had no idea that confidence and ease are the symptom of a simple choice you make. To accept your unique self, no matter how different you are to the established norm. Being free within your own expression of DNA to be your own kind of beautiful. I wish I’d known that back then.
I could have done a lot with my gorgeous young self that was left undone, all because I didn’t understand. No amount of wishing, dieting, exercising, hoping, slouching, yearning or moping was ever going to change the facts.
I am a giantess.
Fast forward to my middle age… I’m so proud of being built this way. My size has become a bankable commodity since I started plus-size modelling last year. My confidence comes from finally getting it. I’m this person. Who you see is me. All of me. I wear my love of cake in my curves. I wear my love for people in my smile and the wrinkles around my eyes. And I wear my heart on my sleeve, because that is just who I am. No filter. No problem.
Some people love these things about me, and others don’t… and that’s no problem too. I can’t change a thing about it. I’m happy, at last, in my own skin. Happy to be who I am, in a body that functions. Happy to be surrounded by people I love and to know that above all things, that’s the most beautiful thing of all. He tangata. Happy to be the age I am. To know the things I know. To leave behind me the pointless self-flaggelation of living to the standards of others. It’s a kinder, freer way to live. It makes space within my noisy head for more useful thoughts… the sort that create and feed and nurture me. Building me up to do the same for others.
I’m starting a hashtag across my social media, because I think we don’t celebrate nearly enough, all the ways that age can be ‘becoming’ to women. I’m all about the notion that beauty is relative to your soul, and sometimes, that takes a long time to understand. How are you letting age become you? What are you noticing about yourself that you finally GET, that you didn’t appreciate about yourself when you were younger?
This is not a diet post. But it is all about how I shed some dead weight that was keeping me down.
It all began with blogging.
Some of my friends didn’t like me blogging, they felt it was too public, others commented that I had too much time on my hands or that it was narcissistic. Those comments stung. But blogging has proved to be one of the chief delights of my life. You see, as my health declined, so did my self esteem. I felt that I grew less useful and more of a burden as time progressed. I watched myself get sicker and less mobile as if I was watching from outside of myself. And there was, at times, a kind of loathing I felt for the girl I saw living in my skin and dealing with those problems. She was living on a different planet, with a gravitational field ten times the weight of earth’s normal. She had sunk low, very low into the quagmire. And she didn’t think she would ever re-surface.
But blogging threw me a lifeline, it kept me present, it forced me to examine what was happening in my life. I smile now to think that becoming a blogger was actually accidental.
Building a blog was a brilliant thing for me to focus on. It brought me out of myself utterly and forced my brain to work in new ways. It gave me further writing opportunities and I had the chance to dabble again with rudimentary graphics, something I love to do. Almost as much as writing the posts! And the writing was therapeutic. I was on a roll, but still interrupted by self doubt. Then, a few weeks into the course, I discovered blog stats. A lot of bloggers don’t pay them any mind at all, they don’t like to look at them and they don’t like to attach meaning to them. But for me, it was like an objective, definitive message every time I looked at them. For the first time in years, I had performance feedback. It was like water in the desert! And then people began to comment on my posts, and I had connection and conversation about my writing. It blew me away.
Since I started blogging (if you average it out) I’ve had 4000 hits a day, according to the stats provided by my web host. So that is how it began. My confidence started to grow because something as meaningless as numbers on a screen showed me that I don’t have to be cool to have something of worth to offer. Well that is how I interpreted it. Every click on my site felt like validation! Blog stats are a funny thing. There’s a big difference between hits and page views, and purists who crunch numbers get really into all the permutations and details of all those stats. I actually don’t give a rats about the technical meaning of those stats. What they meant to me, was that I had something to give. People wanted to read my words. And that was the beginning of seeing my worth as separate from my health.
Writing a blog opened up other opportunities for me too. I was accepted on to a Leadership Programme for people in the disability community. I was very excited to learn more about social leadership in the field of chronic and invisible illness. I hoped the leadership programme would help me to step into something much bigger than myself. I listened to some of New Zealand’s most influential leaders in social change. Every speaker gave me food for thought. Every reading taught me something new. But even better, that programme taught me something you only learn from experience. I learned in a very real way how to stand up for what I believe in. I learned that I can survive judgement and criticism, that it can help me to focus on my core values and test the things that I say are true for me. I learned that sticking up for myself is empowering and builds strength. I learned that I can cop flak and carry on. The lesson was painful, but it healed, and I grew.
My year in the Leadership Programme had coincided with six months of immune modulation therapy and a further six months of oral steroid support. It kicked my immune system into line. I was in remission! And modelling, a preposterous concept the year before, was actually a possibility. I went for a test shoot in Sydney. I started work as a model for the agency62Models. In October, I volunteered to do a breast cancer fundraising lingerie calendar. Something well outside of my comfort zone. We were photographed out at Ambury Park Farm on a blustery Sunday, lying in the grass in our bras and knickers. But I did not expect the publicity that it would bring.
Fatness is a fact of western society. We live in a world of plenty, we are time poor and we are sedentary. We are yet to grapple with the problems that obesity brings us as a country, but let me just address the elephant in the room (no pun intended), it is a real problem. More than 60% of women are over size 14 and considered ‘plus size’ by our fashion industry; but that doesn’t mean over 60% of women are obese. My own fatness is the result of six years of illness, medications and an inability to exercise. And my love of cake! I acknowledge the facts of my fat. It would be better for my body if I was not this heavy, yet I am. And my size does not dictate my worth. I don’t celebrate my fat. But I do celebrate having womanly curves and stepping into body confidence regardless of size. I do celebrate honouring our bodies for what they do for us instead of putting ourselves down. These bodies go through so much, and often things out of our control. Fat is a complex issue.
Media interest in the plus size lingerie calendar resulted in a long discussion on TV3s facebook page. A number of people wrote deeply hateful things about fat girls in their comments. I watched with dismay as the brave, lovely ladies who posed with me for such a good cause, became targeted by the comments levelled at the models.
“They should all be taken back to the farm and trained like the pigs they are”
“I would not want any of these women to be role models for my daughter”
My dismay was not about the comments, although they are awful. My dismay was that some of the girls were letting nasty words decimate their sense of self. Opinions are cheap. I see now that any person delivering criticism at my door has to be someone I really respect for it to hurt. I know this, because I wasn’t hurt in the slightest. In fact, I wanted everyone to ignore those comments rather than bite back. I have reached a place where criticism has found it’s proper place in my head. Realising that I wasn’t hurt by those words made me pause and think about how far I have come.
I’m just being me. Doing my thing. Using my voice about the things that I feel strongly about. My voice won’t always agree with everyone else’s. My thing won’t always be your cup of tea. Who I am might cause you discomfort or make you feel like judging me. And finally, at this ripe old age, I am okay with that. When I started blogging in May of 2014, I had no idea that I was really starting a journey in knowing who I am, what I stand for, and what I will put up with. I had no idea that I was girding myself with the truth of who I am as a human being. Learning how to activate my force field and deflect the worthless words of detractors.
If you are feeling weighed down and your self esteem is at an all time low, please find something to do that brings you joy. Take a step into the passions that give you a sense of success and provide you with useful feedback about who you truly are. Every single person on this planet is worthy, has something to give and a soul purpose. Ignore those stupid detractors in your head or in your ear. Tell them where to go. You have much more to do than spend your life anchored to a negative perception of yourself. Find your thing. Find your self. Let go of the shackles and heavy burdens you carry, you’d be surprised how much easier it is to travel without the weight of all that.
Here is one of my favourite songs of all time, oh James Taylor! I referred to it in a competition I entered the other day run by a NZ designer label, Euphoria, it’s all about how confidence is beautiful. If you are interested in helping me out with a vote, you can find my entry here… mine is the one titled ‘Up On the Roof’. 🙂
…and listen to this soul-weight-lifting song all about getting away from the quagmire, here:
If only a certain book and movie hadn’t ruined the expression ‘shades of grey’… that might have been my title. But ‘Black and White’ is just as useful. It’s top of my mind because it was a photo prompt for today. I took this picture of the hands of John and Mary.
I know people who are very black and white. They think in polarities, have pretty fixed views and don’t mind sharing them. I’m more of a shades of grey girl. I see things in their complexity. I feel differently about them the more I think about them. My opinion is often strong, but it changes the more I know about something. I don’t mind admitting to being wrong (eventually!) which somewhat diminishes the victory for the hubster when we fight and I concede! Of course, it’s VERY rare (!) but you know, it happens.
Most of the time I think in shades of grey. But I felt very black and white about a few things in 2015. I held them tightly, more tightly than most things because they offended my sense of justice greatly. I kept them in my fists until the pressure turned them into dark stones, those offences I felt. I don’t always deal well with conflict, especially when I am conflicting with men I find arrogant. My usually broad mind strobes itself into sharp contrasts. Painful flashes of black and white. But time is useful to the wounded sensibility. Time brings perspective and a different way of looking at things. Time ameliorates the damage until the harsh difference between black and white softens into grey. Another way of seeing things. A whiter shade of pale.
And there I am at last, in the rain and wind. Fighting the elements on the edge of Mercury Bay. Shouting into the gale because it whips my words away and I can let the last vestiges of anger out. Let it out in the freedom of knowing that the expression of it is all I really need. All I ever needed. The tide is pulling the beach from under my feet, dragging the last year under. And I am ready to see it go. I let the hot stones of anger tumble out of my fists and away with the tide. I fill my lungs with cold, salty air. Spinning round and round in the blustery chaos, arms wide. Hands open to the air.
Then, the wind quiets enough so I can hear my own voice again. My feet slap out a regular rhythm on the hard sand. Lace scallops of foam edge the tide’s retreat. I notice that I am humming. The remnants of a Christmas carol, a song for Mary… breath of heaven… hold me together… light up my darkness… it has a pretty melody. I hum the words I don’t know. I think about the rhythm of the waves being the breath of life itself. Inhaling, exhaling. I think about the water, crashing onto the shore, or falling in raindrops from the clouds, rendering the sand into a carpet. I notice that the lace edge of sea is beaded with shells and seaweed. It is beautiful.
I turn away from the breaking surf, away from the grievances. I turn my face upward to the rain, to the skies clouded with grey.
Have you ever played this record in your conversations with your kids? Er, yep! Like so many parents we strive, sacrifice and stress out about the extra-curricular lessons. About making sure our babies are keeping up with the full gamut of opportunities. “Who knows what their ‘thing’ will be? They certainly won’t be left behind their peers, let’s try them all!”
In our particular parenting story, it began with swimming at 8mths old. I had read somewhere that the earlier lessons for swimming begin, the better for the child. So she began. We’d rock up to our sauna of an indoor swimming complex with all the bells and whistles to make the lesson thing run smoothly. Towels and nappies and spare bum-cream and a bottle for after and a snack just in case, organic baby wash for the showers, a fresh set of clothes for after, the pram, water and a snack for us. Seriously, we were prepared! The whole palaver took three hours.
Baby gym was next, because according to my sources, without the right/left brain coordination she would never develop correctly. We ran around the obstacle course lifting, flying, chanting “Good! Aaaaand, left leg UP, good girl!” By the end of each session she was sound asleep in the car seat and I was ready to curl up with a blankie and a dummy myself. And yet we pushed on. No way my girl was going to have my coordination issues, my fear of water, my mediocre ballet career….
Ballet. Shoes, tights, leotard, videoing on my phone so we could practise the steps at home. Mums all peering through the studio windows, desperate to see their babies dancing, anxiously comparing, heads nodding with the beat, toes flexing in their shoes, hands occasionally fluttering away from their sides. Aaaaand, breeeeathe.
Netball Mums, yelling from the sidelines “SHOOT! FIND A SPACE! !!!REF!!! C’MON!” quiet conferences between Mums and sideways glances, passive aggressive conversations with coach. Pep talks on the way home from practise, try harder, use your head, toughen up, listen to your coach, mark your opposition!
Gymnastics, Tennis, Hip hop, Art class, Trampolining, Ukulele, Theatre Arts, Mind Lab, Digital Music Composition. Oh goodness. I list them all and I am ashamed. How many hoops has my baby jumped through to satisfy my vicarious ambitions? So many. Too many. How many dollars have we funnelled into the accomplishments of our daughter? How many times have I berated her, and behooved her to make more effort? I try not to, but I confess, often I see her as second-chance-me. She can have the opportunities I lacked, try the things I wasn’t brave enough to try, be the girl I wanted to be.
But what does she want to do?
Only one thing.
The only one thing that she has ever wanted to do.
The only one thing I know nothing about (ouch. ….any wonder why?!)
The only one thing she has ever enjoyed, out of all of them. My girl will do anything to be near a horse, to ride a horse, to scoop the poop of a horse and pick the hoof of a horse. At first I didn’t encourage her, isn’t horse riding for the elite? That’s just not us, sweetie. She persistently begged me from four years old. Horse themed birthday parties were as far as I went. But her innate passion wouldn’t give up its grip on her. She is a horsey girl through and through. And so, I let go of my other ambitions, I had to. Horse riding isn’t fiscally friendly! She has proven across the years that this horse thing is no passing phase.
So there she goes. Taking a chance, that is nothing to do with what I didn’t get to do. We were forecast for a tropical cyclone today. I woke to the sound of the wind whipping around the house in the dark of early morning. I hoped that maybe, she’d say “Let’s give it a miss today, Mum”. But no, she was already up, already in her gear and chomping at the bit (pardon the pun). I watched her circling the arena in the rain, her little face peeping out from under her riding helmet and raincoat, wreathed in smiles. It makes me laugh at myself. She’s found her bliss. If only I had listened to her a little earlier I might have discovered my own. Because there is no joy like watching your child do something they love to do. Even in a storm. My girl enjoys jumping over hoops more than jumping through them, and at last, I understand what she is teaching me. “Let me be who I am Mum, not who you wanted to be”.
Summer has just begun to slip off the seasonal dial. It’s been a hot one and getting to a pool or a beach has been a prime objective most days. I’ve seen countless little ones splashing through rock pools or creating sandy kingdoms, hollering to their friends in the water. Pre teen girls running along the beach and squealing at the waves and each other. The sun is high and the swimmers are mostly on, though it seems the younger the child the less likely you’ll find them wearing a one piece, or even two pieces of their cossie. I have an adorable photo of my daughter looking out to the horizon, her little bare butt cheeks dusted with golden sand.
Speaking of sand and butts, have you discovered that fab little trick with baby powder? Who knew? Baby powder is the most efficient way to remove sand from feet after a trip to the beach. Works a treat for butts too! But I digress.
The thing that bothers me, is that we are so acutely aware of the dangers within our society, that we can’t relax about nudity. Pedophilia has frozen our reason, so that it is difficult to see the innocent sweetness of little nudie sweethearts without being hit by a bolt of anxiety. Are they safe? Is some predator watching them? Can I prevent harm by covering them up? Can you even buy baby Burqas? Am I doing the wrong thing as a parent by letting my child run nude, or wear an itsy bitsy bikini?
I faced similar anxiety watching my son in his first dance concert. Groups of heavily made up girls wearing cropped lycra confections and eyelash extensions took to the stage for the act before his. They gyrated their way through a raunchy rendition of ‘Trouble’. The crowd went wild. I cringed, thinking of my young lad looking on from the wings. Then gave myself an internal face slap. They are just kids, it is me that is interpreting these things through a sexual filter. What does my son see? Colour, rhythm, fun. I hope…. the dilemma.
I’ve read the forums about the sexualisation of young girls, the distress about the increase in products like padded bras, g strings, high heels and bikinis for pre teens. I sympathise with both sides of the argument and I suspect that like many of the things on this parenting journey, we have less control than we think we do. Girls have dressed up and emulated older females since the beginning of time. Child fashion reflects adult fashion. Girls will change away from home to wear the latest fashion, even if Mum and Dad don’t approve. Didn’t you?
The media delivers skinny, minimally curved women clad in little; bronzed brown and perfectly fashioned for the male aesthetic. Young women everywhere depilate all the hair that shows they are, in fact, women. It’s a disappointment that, after all, the predominant media image of women has not yet been revolutionised by the women’s movement. Music videos add their controversial spin on what being a woman should look like. The adult world is sending out the archetype of womanliness. And we wonder why young women go out with their backside creases showing.
It’s very difficult to see all that(!) and not wrap another layer around your daughter. But the thing is, I really, really want my girl to feel proud of and comfortable in her body, regardless of whether it is covered or not. I want her to have the power of body-freedom. Not the self limiting fears over what isn’t ‘perfect’ about her image. I want her to think, “This is me. Just as I am”. I don’t want her to feel that there are parts of her body she should feel ashamed of.
She should grow up considering all her parts, private or otherwise as equally important, special and beautiful in their own right. I don’t want her to cower under the possibility that some freak somewhere is getting their jollies because she is wearing something that highlights her female-ness. I certainly don’t want her to ever believe the lie that it is possible to ‘ask for it’ by what you wear, or don’t wear. Rape and sexual abuse occur because there are people who make disgusting choices to overrule the personal freedom of another. They do these things because of their own mental illness, because of hideous social norms, because humans do bad things to other humans.
I want to teach her to be as safe as she can be; within the understanding that she is a glorious and beautiful person.
I guess I want her to learn make good choices herself. Not because she is afraid of the power of sexual predators, but because she values herself. Is this something that you do by encouraging chaste clothing? Or is it about encouraging safe behaviours, open communications, informed choices? I know that this topic is something we will not shy away from talking about as my girl grows up. I can’t change the world as it is. The media, the pedophiles, the GenY fashion situation. But I can build up my daughter to know that her worth is far deeper than what she does or doesn’t wear. When she was a tiny toddler, looking out to that horizon from the beach, she couldn’t know all the issues that would face her as a female in this society, but she did know that she was awesome, just as she was. I’ll do everything I can to help it stay that way.
There is a popular story that has been doing the rounds about Mohamed Ali. It is told by his daughter Hana in her book about her life growing up with her Dad. She recounts a visit to her father: My father took a good look at us. Then he sat me down on his lap and said something that I will never forget. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Hana, everything that God made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to. Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock. You’ve got to work hard to get to them.” He looked at me with serious eyes. “Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too.” Source: Taken from the book: More Than A Hero: Muhammad Ali’s Life Lessons Through His Daughter’s Eyes.
Except that it isn’t true.
Everything valuable in the world is not covered and hard to get to. The beauty of nature, the abundance of the earth, the joy of relating to other human beings from a place of confidence and peace. Value is not about rarity and market dictations, I choose to have a different value system.
What do I value most in my daughter? Her unique self. Sandy bottomed, hip hop happy, free, innocent and unfettered by all this grown up anxiety. Long may it last!
What do you think? Do you have daughters and worry about what they wear? How do you address the issues of body-shaming vs. over sexualistion? Does it bother you?