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Reclaiming Summer: thoughts on body image and mental health

Late spring to early summer is my favourite time of year. I love the outpouring of delicate blossoms, the tender green of new leaves, the emergence of warmth and light.  The whispers of sea and sand presaging holidays in the sun.

There is, however, a downside to the changing of the seasons. I have memories that are still triggered by the scent of newly-mown grass or the first day it’s too hot to wear a coat. The dread of having to shed the black tights and school blazer I wore all winter in favour of compulsory cotton ankle socks and short-sleeved blouses. The fear of flesh being exposed by wearing shorts for athletics.

It wasn’t always like that. As a child I loved running around the garden in a sun dress and sandals or splashing in the paddling pool in my swimming costume. It was a delight to embrace the fine weather and rid myself of thick, itchy fabrics and clumpy shoes.

That unselfconscious joy ended some time before my early teens. Maybe it was the first time I walked in a dress past a gang of cool kids, who gave me a sarcastic wolf-whistle before collapsing with laughter. Or the first time I got abuse in the street for being an ugly fat slag. Or when friends said, “no offence, but you don’t have the legs to wear that skirt.”

I often think about that phrase: you don’t have the legs. Since I do have legs, as well as the privilege of being able to use them, it clearly referred to an aesthetic judgement of them. Back then I assumed that others’ opinions were more important than my physical comfort. I hid in jeans and long sleeves through sweltering heatwaves, not for reasons of modesty or faith, but for shame at not being blessed with ‘perfect’ limbs. Summer, I concluded, wasn’t for me.

The irony is that medically I was never even overweight. I was/am a UK size 12 and well within the ‘healthy’ BMI range. But this was the early 90s when models and cool celebrities strived to be size zero, surviving on cocaine and cigarettes, because nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. We were bombarded with airbrushed images and the vicious tabloid scrutiny of women’s changing figures, not to mention a dieting industry reliant on us hating ourselves enough to buy their products. None of which has changed.

I realise now that body-shaming is a means of abuse and coercive control. If you call a woman fat, whatever her size, the majority of the time you’ll be rewarded with an emotional reaction. Humiliating us helps to diminish our power. It makes us want to shrink and be small, fearing to take up space or be visible. And although fat-shaming is disproportionately directed at women, there’s increasing evidence that the same issues are affecting men.

Our appearance influences our economic prospects too. In a competitive consumerist system where jobs must be fought for, looks are part of our social capital. People perceived as unfit or unattractive are routinely discriminated against in the workplace and elsewhere. According to one study a woman just a stone heavier earns an income of £1,500 less per year than a thinner woman of the same height.

The constant pressure to improve our natural selves takes a toll on our mental health and confidence. Food or exercise-related disorders are the obvious result, but poor self-image is also a factor in depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. It’s not all about weight either: we can fall short of the ‘ideal’ body in a multitude of ways: strength, muscularity, the appearance of our skin, the thickness of our hair, and more.

Body image isn’t a brand-new issue facing a younger generation. When I was growing up, even those who weren’t affected themselves knew someone with anorexia or who self-harmed. But these effects have been heightened and amplified by technology. It’s easier than ever to create and share altered unrealistic images, to promote extreme dieting online, or to attack and bully on social media.

Combine this with political upheaval, socioeconomic uncertainty, the impact of austerity and a desperate lack of support services, and it’s not surprising that rates of eating disorders, anxiety, low self-esteem and other mental health issues are soaring. We are dealing with an unprecedented crisis in the wellbeing of our young people.

What gives me a glimmer of hope is that we’re beginning to find our voices, as evidenced by the body positivity movement and the theme chosen for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Thirty years ago the signs of trauma were there, yet the culture of silence around mental health was so ingrained that in my experience, they were never spoken about or addressed.

I remember it being a revelation to me that you could choose to see yourself as beautiful, regardless of society’s values or a number on a scale.

I don’t believe it’s wrong to care how we look or to appreciate the beauty of others. I enjoy make-up and nice clothes as much as anyone else. The problem arises when the judgement of physical appearance is used to trample over people, to restrict their choices through inflicting cruelty. And this will only ever change if we move away from competition and dominance towards equality, inclusion and empathy.

Then, perhaps, we’ll get to enjoy the warmth of the summer sun on our bare skin without fear or shame.

 

 

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Publication day: The Beauty of Broken Things

And here it is… the novel I began in October 2015 is finally released today to coincide with World Mental Health Day.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve written which focuses on mental health. It’s been a recurring theme in my writing, usually from a personal perspective. This time, however, I’ve addressed the question of what happens when two people who both have mental health conditions meet and fall in love. What might be the tensions and problems in their relationship? And how might their friends and family feel about them getting involved with another vulnerable soul?

The main characters, Kerry and Alex, presented themselves to me almost immediately. I knew at once there was great passion and chemistry between them, as well as significant barriers to them being together. I also knew they were older than the norm for romantic fiction, and that they would meet as volunteers in a charity shop while both were unemployed and financially struggling.

What I couldn’t see at all was how the narrative would play out. The only way to find out was to start writing scenes and see where it went. Along the way a host of other characters joined in, each with their own desires and conflicts and reasons for volunteering in the shop. You can read a synopsis here.

My main aim was to tell Kerry and Alex’s story as authentically as possible. I wanted to convey the hell of living with severe anxiety or depression, especially with regards to stigma and the difficulty of finding employment. I didn’t want to depict an unrealistic scenario where the characters emerge from a couple of therapy sessions with their self-worth issues miraculously fixed.

At the same time, I didn’t want to dismiss the possibility of hope and healing either. Most of all I wanted to show the inner strength to navigate life that people with mental health conditions can develop, as well as a heightened sense of empathy.

The Beauty of Broken Things is available on Amazon in paperback or as an e-book.

I hope you enjoy the story and would be really grateful if you were able to leave a review.

Thank you.

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A cover story: developing the design for my book

Book front cover 4-8-18One of the most exciting aspects of being a self-published author is having control over the design, branding and marketing of your book. I’d been looking forward to the cover design for ages, but before I got started I spent some time browsing around Waterstones to get a feel for trends. I also read a lot of information about self-published book covers.

While there was disagreement over what made a good cover, one piece of advice was consistent: that the book should fit in with what is expected of its genre. This, I imagine, is why authors and publishers often fall out over covers, because the author is committed to their artistic vision of their story, while the publisher and bookseller want to position it visually in the marketplace so that the right readers are drawn to it.

My novel sits broadly within the contemporary women’s fiction genre, since it’s written in an accessible style with a central female character who is dealing with relationships and other relatable women’s issues. However, it’s also gritty in parts. My two middle-aged characters are facing unemployment, poverty and mental ill-health. It’s set in a charity shop in Manchester, so not the most obviously glamorous location. If my choice of fonts and images on the cover were to suggest a sexy romance or high heels and shopping, it would no doubt come as a massive disappointment to the reader who downloaded it to their Kindle to take on holiday.

I needed a design that would give a prospective buyer a reasonable indication of what kind of book it was, and that felt right for the tone and mood of the story. I also wanted it to be eye-catching and have artistic merit.

My initial idea was inspired by a friend’s comment on my title, The Beauty of Broken Things. She said it reminded her of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold or silver. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

It suited the core message of my book, which is that people who have suffered adversity or struggled with their mental health can also possess amazing strength and beauty of character, not just in spite of their difficulties or imperfections, but as a result of them.

As I was searching through stock photo libraries for Kintsugi images, I came across other art forms that incorporated the concept of brokenness, including the mosaics designed by Antoni Gaudi at Parc Guell in Barcelona, which use the Trencadis technique of creating stunning new patterns out of waste pieces of ceramics. At once I was sure their rich intense colours would make for a striking book cover, as well as being thematically representative.

Book cover 4-8-18.jpgMy husband came up with the idea of cutting out the spaces within the mosaic for the title text, and I immediately loved it. Once we’d sourced the perfect image he got started on the artwork. We also bought a license to use the font, because once I’d seen it I knew I wasn’t going to be happy with any other.

Although Tony isn’t a graphic designer by profession, he produces a variety of marketing materials for his own business and he is a natural artist, so I was confident he’d do a good job. His attention to detail was great, right down to using Photoshop to line the edges of the cut-out areas with the same cement that was used in the mosaic.  I am delighted with the results, and hope my readers will be too.

Of course there can be pitfalls when embarking on a creative project with a partner or friend. Most self-publishing experts advise against using a non-professional to do your cover. All I can say is that in my case, it was the right choice for me. I found it easier to communicate what I wanted and to be assertive about what wasn’t working than I would have done with a stranger. Another benefit was that Tony had read the whole book, while cover designers typically rely on a synopsis or extract.

One of the many advantages of self-publishing is that a cover can easily be changed if it’s not working, or can be tested against a new version to measure performance.  I’d be sorry to say goodbye to the mosaic though, as I love its colourful jumbled beauty. Hopefully I’ll visit Barcelona one day and see the real thing.

The Beauty of Broken Things will be published on 10th October 2018, which is World Mental Health Day.

Image: Sandra Veronica/Shutterstock.com

 

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My novel, The Beauty of Broken Things, to be published on World Mental Health Day

I am thrilled to announce that my novel The Beauty of Broken Things will be available on Amazon from 10 October 2018, which is also World Mental Health Day.

The novel is a contemporary love story and an exploration of how our mental health influences our lives, work and relationships. Its two protagonists are middle-aged, unemployed, and struggling with anxiety and depression. They meet as volunteers sorting through second hand goods in a charity shop in Manchester.

I first developed the idea for the book in October 2015, so it will have been a three-year process from start to finish. Although the story is fictional, it’s strongly informed by my own experience of mental health conditions.

The manuscript is close to finished now. It’s already been through several developmental edits and I’m awaiting further feedback on the revised version from a relative who is a published author. After that it will be ready for the final copy-editing and proofreading stages.

In the meantime I’m reading as much as I can about the self-publishing process. There really is so much help and advice out there. I’d like to mention one book in particular, Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala, which radically differs from others in its genre. Lauren goes right to the heart of why so many creative people feel strong resistance to promoting their work, and she gently helps us to shift our perspective until the prospect is more exciting than daunting. I recommend it to anyone who hates the idea of “selling.”

I also went to the Self-Publishing Conference in Leicester last month, which was a fantastic experience. All the presentations on topics including cover design, marketing and print-on-demand were very informative and the whole atmosphere was so supportive and inspiring for independent authors.

At the conference I was lucky to meet Aki Schiltz, director of The Literary Consultancy. I approached them earlier in the year for a full report on my novel, which I found very useful and motivating. I felt that the editor I was assigned, Thalia Suzuma, really understood and appreciated the story and characters, and she gave me some great suggestions for improvement. The Literary Consultancy have also kindly provided me with further advice on self-publishing.

The next big thing once the manuscript is finished will be the cover design. All the marketing and advertising I plan to do relies on having strong visual branding in place, so this will be a crucial element to get right. I have some ideas already but will write more on this in another post.

Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the most powerful ways we can help to promote understanding of our own mental health and that of others is through sharing stories. I hope my novel will contribute to this.