Monday, 25 April 2011


Summer has come early this year. Temperatures in London this weekend were higher than Madrid, Sydney and Hawaii. And coming after the coldest December on record, you'd think I'd be embracing all that Vitamin D with open arms. Well, not exactly, because bright sunshine brings a particular set of tribulations for the supernaturally pale.

The rest of the year passes quite quietly, in part due to the murderous expression I wear in public deterring even the most lairy of white van men from hollering at me, but as soon as the sun comes out, all eyes are on me. Not because I'm shimmying down the street in a string bikini, bosoms bouncing. But because I'm doing something even more shocking instead. I'm completely covered up with only hands and feet poking out as I go from A to B...

While this stops me from being the colour of a lobster (and feeling as the kind of pain being said crustacean felt when being boiled alive), it really provokes people's attention. Men and women alike feel entitled to comment on my skin and my hair colour and my choice in clothing. Men seem affronted that I'm denying them their summer right to ogle my body in skimpy clothes (although if they'd seen an arse as pale as mine wandering down the road more often, they'd be less keen in future. It's more Caspar the Friendly Ghost than Copacabana.) Women seem to think I'm looking down on their hotpants and haltertops and everyone seems to regard it as practically un-British to not turn my skin red as part of the Union Jack.

You only have to see the frothing and gnashing and wailing over Nigella Lawson's burkini moment on Bondi Beach to see that the Brits regard exposing their tender flesh in large quantities and for long periods of time as something so dear to them that it should be enshrined in the Magna Carta. This is a woman who has a complexion that is just ripe for malignant melanoma and has lost her mother, sister and first husband to cancer and yet she has been castigated for covering up in the Australian sun. The fact that she has a sexy persona in her job means that she has no right to protect herself from short term discomfort and long term danger. Even the slightly less tabloidy readers of the Observer all had a opinion. Why couldn't she just wear a a T-shirt and leggings? Gloves? Factor 50? Sit in a box? Stay indoors?

But none of these things shut people up around the translucently pale. When I wear something as out there as a shirt in the summer, passers-by yell at me from their cars, tut at me in the street and pass comments on my chances of missing out my Vitamin D or needing some colour to look healthier or somehow being repressed. When I shuffle round in beer gardens to avoid the baking midday sun, people roll their eyes at me as if I'm acting like a total diva. If I stay indoors with the windows open, sampling the fresh air by proxy, people tell me I'm spoiling it for them, I'm no fun and I need to get out more. If I carry a parasol, they fall about laughing, cracking jokes about raining men and umbrellas. Going puce provokes howls of laughter and endless jokes. When I slather myself in Factor 50 million, they refuse to help me with the back bits I can't see, mock the level of SPF and then trot out the conspiracy that suncream causes cancer rather than protect from it.

Cancer is a frightening word and I understand that most people laugh in its face rather than think about its cruel realities, but from a very very young age, the spectre of skin cancer has hung over me. I am pale, the kind of pale that people gasp at, that veins glow through, that turns slightly blue in winter. I can't buy commercial foundations and even the sheerest tights look like gravy browning on my legs. I am also a natural redhead with a fairly good smattering of freckles (not that you can see 'em under the wrong shade of make up I have to wear) and I burn in the sun almost instantly. I famously once got sunburn over lunch in Glasgow. Even slightly overcast days have been known to give me water blisters. I am so Celtic looking people assume I'm Irish from 50 paces. I have a grandmother who never sunbathed in her life who had a melanoma removed and monitored for years. I am at such a risk from skin cancer, I'm like the poster child for dermatology students. Every time I go out in the blazing sun I am aware at the back of my mind that I might be paying for this period of pleasure for years to come.

Therefore it's beyond bloody annoying when people mock and mention my attempts not to die early. Yes, I also like staying out of the sun to avoid getting wrinkles and to keep my youthful complexion, but primarily, sun-dodging is for me about not ending up in pain and with a liefe threatening illness. Weirdly, neither myself or the sun police were so concerned by years of enthusiastic smoking and its wrinkle creating, cancer causing charms, rarely ever being told to give up or hearing any comments about it even though that's definitely the more antisocial habit. But everyone's got an opinion about my SPF habits...

I won't mind so much that interest involved telling me where the hell you can get a decent suncream with a high factor and good UVA and UVB protection that doesn't leave an unctuous oily white film on all exposed flesh while attracting every scrap of dust, dirt and dead insect life in a 40 mile radius, before sliding off and staining clothes, upholstery and melting plastic and leaving you broken out and slippery. Until then I'll continue with my attempts to dress like an eccentric Agatha Christie heroine crossed with a beekeeper and play musical chairs with the shade instead. And yes, I am hot and  in my layers and I'm envious of your golden limbs and well behaved skin. Try not to provoke me further please with stupid questions. You won't like it when I start commenting on your crow's feet and wrinkles in return!

Thursday, 7 April 2011


After my successes last year in having more therapy than anyone else you've ever met, giving up smoking and turning my Diet Coke consumption from excessive to once in a blue moon, I'm keeping up with the idea of breaking bad habits and trying to be a bit more healthy and hoping to embrace the somewhat alien world of exercise.

This is trickier for me than my previous life changes. I have never been one for exercise, even as a child. While I was happy to play outside, as soon it became at all organised and good for you, I would always forgo exercise for sitting quietly in a corner with a good book. I am also the opposite of competitive. I couldn't care less who wins the game and displays of intense team spirit over winning make me uncomfortable in the extreme. And I have chronic fatigue. Along with being permanently tired, one of the main symptoms of this illness is feeling excessively exhausted from minimal exertion. My body just can't take a ten mile run. It can barely take a shower without keeling over sometimes. So how do I get a bit fitter and stronger without boring myself stupid or making myself feel ill?

I'm not entirely sure and since I can't really stretch (if you'll pardon the pun) to hiring a trainer, I thought I'd avail myself of the free advice of the internet to find some blogs where people talk about starting to get fitter and stronger and take some tips from there and balance it up with my resources and abilities. I was unprepared for what I found lying behind this particular door online.

It was like stepping back into the changing rooms at school, with only the voices of the fittest and most competitive and most privileged being heard. Everyone I've found who writes about exercise seems to have either always been the effortlessly sporty type who chose a cross country run as a treat as a child or the born again type who once used to be very unfit, quite overweight and now embrace exercise with the zeal of a drowning man sighting a safety raft. Both talk about exercise in quite intimidating terms, talking marathons rather than seeing it as a hobby. They often disuss calories burning in a fashion that might pique the interest of anyone restricts food for any reason or trigger someone trying to move on from those often self destructive behaviours. And most of them take a less  encouraging tone, going for the hectoring style of a particularly sadistic PE teacher with added sanctimony. Just because your body can do a certain form of exercise doesn't mean everyone else's can too.

There seems to be little room for for personal variation in these blogs or celebration of the myriad talents of the human race that gives us a million different sorts of sport and exercise. If the blogger is a runner, then everyone reading should be a runner too, even if their skills really lie with swimming or pole vaulting. This slightly superior tone and rigidity isn't really the encouragement I need. I don't really know where my skills in the world of exercise lie yet, so I'd prefer not to be scolded and castigated from the outset. I'd like to hear more about the fun of exercise, not be bombarded with pictures of the latest workout gear and shoes so fancy they have a mind of their own.

So I've taken the unusual step (for me) of putting down the laptop and venturing out into the real world in search of inspiration and instruction in the art of getting fitter and taken up trapeze lessons. I'd like to tell you it's a lifelong dream of mine after reading all those stories of kids running off to join the circus in Enid Blyton books, but it's actually the influence of the job advice service I'm attending instead. Someone there attends these lessons in their spare time and thought that the non competitive and work at your own pace feel would suit a bunch of women get back into the world of work and exercise after mental illness while feeling a sense of achievement.

So with visions of sailing gracefully through the air (and lithe toned arms) in my mind, I went off to my first lesson yesterday and faced the challenge. And what challenges they were. Even finding something appropriate to wear was difficult enough and thanks to my appalling foot eye co-ordination half the warm up involved me going the wrong way and out of time. Things didn't get much better or easier when I saw how complicated actually getting onto the trapeze was.

You pull yourself up on the bar, swing your legs backwards over your head and then up straight with your feet on the bar, sliding your hands up the ropes until your chest and legs meet and then you should find yourself balancing on the bar, swinging gently in the breeze. Or plummeting toward the crash mat like a stone in pond if you're me. Incredibly unflexible, I found it extremely difficult to get my legs over my head while hanging upside down while holding onto something that swings about when you grab hold of it. Repeated attempts got me nowhere near mounting the bloody thing and eventually I had to climb onto the bar from a chair, only to discover that swinging about five feet above the ground on something less substantial than a child's swing makes me feel horribly nauseous and quite terrified.

I didn't feel much sense of achievement at the end of the first lesson and I'm kind of dreading next week's already, even though my arms are stronger than I thought and less achy than anticipated today. I'll be spending quite a lot of the next week practising tipping my toes over my head and steeling myself for the swinging again, but I'm not holding out hope that this is my chosen exercise regime for the future. So what works for you? What's good fun and doesn't induce the dry heaves? And have you found an exercise blog that keeps it inspiring and enthusiastic?