FROM FAST-FIX FITNESS TO FLAT-TUMMY TEAS – WHY DO WE ALLOW THE HEALTH & FITNESS INDUSTRY TO PREY ON OUR INSECURITIES?

Perhaps in my busy schedule I had become oblivious to the persistent messages attached to food, health and fitness advertising. Or maybe I had simply learned to ignore it. But with a little extra time on my hands right now, I have been focusing a lot of energy on healing my relationship with my body. And in doing so, I’ve uncovered something that I’ve always known to be true: our society not only romanticises poor self-image, but profits from it.

In the past, I had explained my heightened sensitivity to this issue with my history of low-esteem and disordered eating. Now I realise that my issue lies not in the promotion of exercise or eating ‘healthily’ but the extent to which this is done and the way the health & fitness industries target the insecure. Every nook and cranny is crammed with low-cal, low-fat, hate yourself culture that persuades us that we aren’t good enough. Self-deprecation is not a congenital condition. Instead, we are besieged with esteem-quashing propaganda until we not only feel unworthy but begin to believe it.

With gyms currently closed, my social media has been inundated with adverts for the latest fitness apps. “Abs in 14 days”, “Bigger booty in 30 days”, “Lose weight in 4 weeks”. Apart from a few yoga and running apps, to whom I am eternally grateful, these adverts solely focus on the aesthetic results of exercise. Not one mentions the benefits of exercise for your mind and soul, the sweet release of endorphins post workout, the sense of achievement as you collapse in a sweaty heap. Nor the advantages of regular exercise for general physical health, like heart condition or blood pressure. Some people need to lose weight for medical reasons. But for the majority of the population, weight will fluctuate a little either side of their ‘set weight’ in accordance with lifestyle and genetically determined biology. For these people, losing weight is a goal they think they should have. As are toned legs, bums and tums.

Last week, I saw an Instagram post captioned: “Are you ready & motivated to start working on a flat tummy?”, yet another ideal instilled in us by the health and fitness industry. This one hit a little close to home, because the thing I have always berated my body for is not having a flat stomach. My body composition means I’m perhaps slightly ‘curvier’ than average and what on some days is a curved posture, on other days is a small pouch. Here I store my food, my appendix, my intestinal tract and my uterus. I know a lot of women who have flat stomachs because they have an entirely different genetic makeup that allows them to. But I also know a lot of women who don’t, and struggle with this. Yet there is absolutely zero evolutionary advantage to having a flat stomach, unless of course your life goal is to be flat-packed enough to slide through letterboxes in your spare time. This brings me to question how ab-focused workouts and flat-tummy teas have somehow conditioned us to believe that our worth is based on our ability to linearise our lower abdomens. I like to think of self-love as a rebellious feminist act. If we choose to define ourselves by whether we have a thigh gap, or a flat stomach, rather than a degree or a job promotion, we allow ourselves to be reduced to mere aesthetics, essentially unravelling the work of all the feminists that came before us.

Though the health industry doesn’t only target women, it appears that we struggle more openly with body image. The constant focus on improving physique can make exercise and fitness a difficult area to navigate for those struggling, regardless of gender. How can someone be expected to appreciate their body if they are constantly being encouraged to change it? But trying to avoid this culture of body-shaming becomes difficult when it is so deeply engrained in our society. Decoupling food and exercise from your esteem is a long and difficult process, especially whilst constantly being told to tone up, slim down, never stop striving for your goal. Lately, I have tried moving towards more fitness-based goals, such as being able to run a certain distance, or lift a certain weight, or hold a headstand for a certain amount of time. Still, I often feel bombarded with diet culture content, and the sense that the industry is taking advantage of our insecurities.

And how can we blame them? When we so often treat our bodies with unrivalled disrespect. Not small enough, not big enough, too much muscle, too much skin – we never allow ourselves to be sufficient to fit the mould our bodies create. When we don’t adhere to society’s beauty ideals, we turn to exercise to change our bodies, in a futile attempt to become happier in our sense of self. And then we commit the ultimate crime: we starve ourselves not only of self-love, but of all our favourite foods.

When it comes to the health & fitness industry, food and exercise go hand in hand. Any fitness freak will tell you that ‘bodies aren’t built in the gym, they’re made in the kitchen’, which I’m sure is true to an extent. There is plenty of research to suggest that specific diets will make you run faster, lift higher and grow stronger, and others to make you lose weight, lose fat and lose sight of your healthy relationship with food. My point is not that these extreme diets don’t work, but that they encourage unhealthy eating habits and attitudes toward food. Constant talk of calories in vs calories out, a concept with a lot of genuine science behind it, has taught us to fear kJ and kcal to the point of restriction. Food is reduced to fuel, disregarding hundreds of years of culinary mastery. Sugars are suicide, and carbs a catastrophe.

However, this negative attitude toward food extends beyond the gym. Marketing companies use ‘guilt free food’ to entice consumers looking for low-calorie, low-fat versions of foods they usually consider ‘treats’, reinforcing the idea that food is the enemy. Even the lexicon used within certain weight-loss groups reinstates food as the antagonist. One fat-phobic club allows members to control their diet by counting ‘syns’. I wonder if, once brainwashed to understand eating as a crime, they are sent straight from this weight-watching, world slimming cult to the eating disorder unit. I’d argue that it is no less healthy to entirely restrict any food you deem to be too fatty, sugary, or downright unhealthy than it would be to eat those same foods everyday for the rest of your life.

The beauty industry is trying to remove all remaining enjoyment of food. Take inspiration from personalities like Ruby Tandoh, who reminds us of “good food things”. Ignore less prophetic personalities that say: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” How wrong they are! I know, because I pushed myself to skinny and back. Some people are naturally slim, but I mean the unhealthy, bone-bearing, skeletal ‘skinny’. Despite struggling daily with self-image, I’d choose this every day over depressions and eating disorders, along with all the side effects that those entail. ‘Skinny’ doesn’t feel that good, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. ‘Skinny’ feels like constant fatigue, heart irregularities and weak bones. It feels like shame and disgust, and ceaseless secrecy. It is insomnia, and irregular periods, and irritability. So, what tastes better than skinny feels? Salty, buttery popcorn fresh from the microwave. Raw cake batter licked straight off the whisk. Crisps, crackers, carrots, cucumber – dipped, dunked or smeared in hummus. Anything fried with garlic and onion. The sweet taste of being healthy and confident in your own skin.

At this point in time, there is an increased pressure on us to be ‘productive’. To use this excess of time to achieve something profound, to prove ourselves to our peers. The health and fitness industry is using a global pandemic to profit from our lack of confidence and self-assurance. When are we going to start calling out the diet culture that is slowly bullying us into hating ourselves? If you take anything from this article, let it be that whatever goals you have set for the coming weeks, the you that exists now is enough. You are enough and nobody can tell you otherwise. Not least these mass corporations and businesses looking to make an extra buck. I have seen one too many ‘paid partnerships’ with appetite-suppressing lollipops and flat-tummy teas on my timeline to allow you to believe that the latter achieves anything more than diarrhoea. Exercise for endorphins, eat food to feel nourished, stop hating the body that does so much for you. Diet culture has been preying on our insecurities and only we have the power to resist.

STAYING HOME, GOING CRAZY, AND DYEING MY HAIR BLUE?

Anyone who’s known me more than approximately three months, will most likely have seen my hair undergo a sudden and drastic change. In December 2017 I walked into my neighbour’s home-based salon and asked her to bleach my long, healthy, previously uncoloured hair. She begged with me not to commit this crime against keratin, but I was adamant. It took over four hours to achieve the bleach blonde I wanted on hair of my thickness and length, and two days later I chopped off more than half of that hard work to a shoulder-length cut. Goodbye long, healthy, previously uncoloured hair, hello hair dye addiction.

Blonde, brunette, pink; waist-length, shoulder-length, bob – I’ve pretty much DIYed myself a new wig on a triannual basis. My hair has been an ongoing experiment in self-image, a visual diary of my changing persona. Dyeing my hair essentially became my answer to any problem, though it is yet to solve any. If ever I had a particularly difficult week or month, this would almost always culminate in an evening in with my two true loves: red wine and hair dye.

Yet for someone so prone to changing their hair, I am unequivocally opposed to visiting hair salons. The very thought is enough to make me want to shave my head entirely, but I know that my disproportionately pea-sized head would look ridiculous bald. Thus, like many people, I have spent years trying to find the perfect salon, or even a decent-ish salon with affordable-ish prices. These salons are about as common as Bigfoot, particularly in London, hence, once they find one they like, many people will stick to the same hairdressers for years. It’s a fool proof formula. And so, these salon-goers book in on a regular basis, for a three-hour gossip and a head massage that they didn’t ask for. They take out a small mortgage for the opportunity to flick through shitty magazines, with a cup of tea and a stale custard cream, whilst someone faffs around their split ends like a clucking hen.

If the process of finding a reliable hairdresser weren’t so heinous, perhaps I would be less cynical. But personally, I cannot think of anything worse than giving a total stranger free reign of a pair of scissors and my mop. Then again, even with a hairdresser I trust, there is little appeal in sitting in a fancy chair munching on digestives, with the latest issue of OK! begging me to read their ‘exclusive’ interview with Prince Harry’s au pair’s mum’s uncle’s dog. Heaven forbid any stylist given the task of cutting my hair as I sit in silence and scowl. In hell, an audio reel of awkwardly personal haircut chit-chat plays on loop, and the cuttings on the floor remain eternally unswept.

At this point, I should probably include the disclaimer that I do not hate hairdressers themselves, I simply hate going to the hairdressers. For me, it’s a long and expensive procedure, that almost always ends in disappointment. You must understand that my hairdresser-hating regime is not without good reason and if some of my more traumatic experiences had been avoided, I might be less inclined to do all of my mane-maintenance myself. There was the time the left side of my hair ended up half an inch longer than the right, or when I went in with ice-blonde hair to get my roots done and came out grey all over. Not that cool silver-grey that only influencers and models appear to be able to pull off, but a dull, granny-ish grey that added 50 years to someone about to turn 20. There is nothing satisfying about leaving a salon with layers, feathers and fringes you didn’t want nor ask for, especially knowing that you wasted a large amount of your day and an even larger portion of your student loan in the process. And there is simply no disguising a hair disaster to which your housemate replies: “Don’t worry, we can fix this”. I have been to far too many hairdressers that suggest something totally different to what I had in mind. Once this happens, it’s a losing battle, the hairdresser inevitably believes that they know best, and your protests will fall on deaf ears. A hairdresser’s creative vision is more persistent than a Magaluf club rep, so if the dreaded “How about…?” is uttered, you best know that it could not matter less what you have asked for. Run for the hills. Don’t even stop to take off that ridiculous black cloak they make you wear, as though you are some back-to-front Hufflepuff. And if you choose to stay, just know that you most certainly aren’t leaving with the straight cut, one-inch trim, no wash, no blow-dry that you desperately want.

It is the inability of 99 % of all hairdressers I have experienced to listen to what I (the customer) wants that forces me to avoid salons at all costs. This is the reason why I only use box dyes, why I refuse to spend more than £25 on a haircut. It may not surprise you that the best haircut I ever had was at a unisex shop in Sheffield, offering £6 snips. Because when you opt for these budget barbers, you simply aren’t paying enough for them to waste their time with all the add-ons you didn’t want in the first place. The hour long head massage, the miraculous hair-repairing mask that smells like your nan’s cough sweets, the burn scars on your scalp because the salon sinks only seem to alternate between artic and four million degrees. And if it doesn’t turn out they way you envisioned, at least you didn’t have to sell your spare kidney to cover the cost.

Dyeing your hair at home is pretty simple. I’ve had some pretty dire results at times, mainly through my own ineptitude and inability to read instructions, but otherwise it’s pretty simple. Cutting your own hair, however, is a little more difficult. The trim is a dreaded act that comes around every couple of months, forcing me to leave my trusty bedroom in favour of a professional salon. Being well past the age of mum’s garden bowlcuts, I recently took a friend’s recommendation and braved a haircut at Hurwundeki in Shoreditch. The website boasts 15-minute cuts at a reasonable price, with a minimal approach that encourages hair to grow naturally with little maintenance, so I was excited (if a little nervous) to try it out.

It was everything you could ask for in a cheap trim, and it was over in less than 25 minutes. A handprinted sign in the window advertised £15 cuts for men, £20 for women, cash only. The salon’s all wood interior gave off a stripped back, minimalist vibe, indicative of what the haircut itself would go on to be. The booking system was uncomplicated: a chalkboard hangs on the wall and customers write their names on it as they arrive, though I did not have to queue at all on a Monday lunchtime. With an eclectic playlist that yo-yos between fusion jazz and Nando’s bossa nova, I enjoyed the calm sensation of not being assaulted with deeply personal questions, nor berated for killing my hair with box bleach. Though arguably not the most technical haircut I’ve ever received, the barber fulfilled all of my hopes and dreams of allowing me to meditate whilst he chopped off an inch or so of hair, only stopping to check if the length was as I wished. He high fived me as I left, satiated and somewhat more relaxed than 25 minutes prior. It reinstated my faith that, even in London, fast and affordable haircut are still available, if only you know where to look. Perhaps if you are looking for the skinny caramel soya Frappuccino of haircuts, Hurwundeki is not for you. But for me, it was perfect.

Unfortunately, coronavirus has claimed hair salons as another of its many victims, so most of us will be forced to grow our hair out until Hurwundeki reopens. It’s not the end of the world. Many salons are also offering vouchers that can be redeemed post-pandemic, helping them to stay afloat amidst the madness. Me? I’ll be #STAYINGHOME, going crazy, and possibly dyeing my hair blue within the month.

Seven Days of Self-Isolation

DAY 1

Uh Oh. I’ve awoken with a slight temperature and what can only be described as “a new continuous cough”, which (in this day and age) means only one thing. Queue that irritatingly addictive ‘It’s Corona Time’ song… I’ve been got. However, as someone prone to anxiety and hypochondria, it is difficult to discern whether these symptoms are a genuine health concern or severe paranoia. I’m pretty sure it’s all in my head, but to be sure I check the NHS Online Assessment Tool. What sounds like an in depth virtual health assessment is, in reality, a two question quiz:

Do you have a fever?

Do you have a cough?

There is no option to inform the computer of an obsessive nature, or that your current condition may be more symptomatic of a minor panic attack than any virus. The tool tells me to self-isolate for a week, but I’m sceptical. I’m now 90 % sure this is all in my head. After consulting a few friends and my boyfriend, I realise the general consensus is to self-isolate to err on the side of caution. I still think I’m paranoid. It is not until I cry down the phone to an unsuspecting 111 advisor, hysterically giving her the history of my paranoia, that I realise how ridiculous I’m being and accept my condition. I let out a tell-tale cough and the very nice lady on the phone tells me I have to self-isolate for 7 days. After she hangs up, I make calls to my employers to let them know I won’t be coming in. In my usual existentialist demeanour, I commit the rest of the day to wallowing in self-pity.

DAY 2

My symptoms have already disappeared. I am 99% certain that yesterday’s ailments were a figment of my anxious imagination. Though I still cough upon occasion, this is rare and typically only when I think about how I haven’t coughed in a while. Due to an update in the government’s advice, my family now also have to isolate for 14 days, and I berate us for the very middle class problems that have arisen from this: Daddy-dearest is having to cancel this weekend’s dinner reservations because both my brother’s birthday and mother’s day will now have to be a stay-at-home affair. It’s likely that the Chemistry ball is going to be cancelled, which is a waste of a good dress, but I’m angrier about my non-refundable Megabus return. The family holiday to Cape Verde for mum’s 50th is no longer going ahead and – to top it all off – Waitrose only had farfalle left. Now this is what I call a crisis! I tell mum that I hope she’s got a good supply of high-quality toilet paper because, if she thinks for a minute that I’ll be downgrading to single ply, she’d better find somewhere else to self-isolate.

DAY 3

Anyone who has met my family can vouch for the fact that, as a collective, we are dangerously unsuited to spending large amounts of time together. This “quality time” trend is best limited to dinner once or twice a week, and the odd bout of chit-chat if anyone happens to accidentally assemble in the kitchen at the same time. It appears self-isolation will be a testing period for us all, with today being the first day that all eight of us remain home together (myself, my parents, my brother and sister, 2 cats and a dog). Throw into the mix that a flood back in November still renders our living room and conservatory unusable, there is very little square-metreage but a lot of room for irritation. And with schools set to close officially from Friday, it looks like we’re in it for the long haul – someone crack out the monopoly. My cough has worsened today but, to escape the confinements of the communal space, and to prevent a serious breakdown, I decide to venture out of the house for the first time since Sunday. I wrap myself up until the point where only my eyes are visible and cycle down to the local park, holding my breath for 10 metres either side of every person I pass – you know, just in case.

DAY 4

I’ve lost track of the days and am struggling to find the motivation to do anything except lie in bed and watch Netflix. I woke up with a migraine and the sweats, leading me to believe I am, indeed, infected. From this point it is a downward spiral. I turn off my phone in order to avoid covid-19 content, and focus on finishing my article on covid-related anxiety, which inevitably ends up triggering some covid-induced anxiety. The irony is more than even I can handle. Later, I struggle to fall asleep because my lungs feel as though someone is sitting on my chest, and my brain is thinking so fast it might spontaneously combust. Today’s highlight was a rumour that, in case of food shortages, the Ministry of Defence are constructing a giant lasagne the size of Wembley, which will be cooked through the underfloor heating beneath the pitch. There is hope yet!

DAY 5

Today I was supposed to implement some sort of routine; however, I don’t wake up until past midday, so I vouch to start tomorrow. Feeling somewhat recovered, I manage to convince myself to go for a run. Just as my lungs are about to burst into flames, I collapse on a park bench, and congratulate myself on this small feat. As it’s a Friday night, and I have no plans, I spend over an hour doing my make-up and enjoy a celebratory glass of wine whilst on Houseparty to my friends. With the government announcing the closure of pubs, bars and cafes (subsequently putting me out of a job), this looks like it could be the way forward for social interaction for the foreseeable future, and thus the virtual pub was born. A shoutout to BoJo for saying he’ll cover up to 80% of our wages – it’s not all bad news.

DAY 6

This morning is greeted with a new sense of optimism toward the situation. With this indefinite stretch of social distancing ahead of us, we better come to terms with it – and quick. Today is my brother’s 17th birthday; he should be somewhere getting drunk on WKD and cheap cider. Instead, we all traipse to the park for a kick around, before ordering a takeaway and playing board games. The pizza guy is gone before dad even answers the door, and my brother loses at both scrabble and boggle. My sister and I succumb to the trend and spend a few hours making TikToks. The end result is rather unfunny, but they’re hilarious to make and it kills some time. It’s not so bad this whole spending-time-with-your-family-thing, but it’s definitely not what I was doing on my seventeenth.

DAY 7

Despite today technically being the last day of my imposed 7-day self-isolation, yesterday’s positivity has disappeared along with the leftover pizza. The realisation that, without a job, this is my new reality: an endless vat of boredom interspersed with mildly bearable bonding time with my family, is a little depressing. Wholeheartedly, I believe that social distancing is the best way to combat corona, not just to protect ourselves but (more importantly) the more vulnerable members of our society. That said, I’m struggling not to succumb to self-pity. I feel so sad that I forget to eat all day, and watch an entire series of Friends. The FA have quashed the lasagne rumour and I feel truly hopeless. Tomorrow, I really must start that routine.

Happy International Women’s Day

In celebration of IWD, I wanted to share one of my favourite things about being a woman. To tell you about my favourite place to hang out with my fellow women, to expose the secrets of one of the greatest cults to exist on Earth, and to answer the question on everyone’s lips:

What really happens in the women’s toilets?

It’s Friday. You’re out somewhere trendy, probably in Peckham or Hackney, at an event too cool to be listed on Resident Advisor. Over 1.4K people had clicked “interested” on the Facebook event, and at least 10 % of these are now packing into the main room, grinding their sweaty bodies against each other in time to some fairly repetitive beats mixed pretty atrociously by a uni student who reckons he can get a spot at Boomtown if he plays this noise in front of his mate’s dogs aunt’s brother. Thankfully, the headline DJ is just about to take over. As your mates begin to push further into the swarm of swaying limbs, you realise you’ve fucked it. A bottle of wine, two gins and a Jager bomb down: your bladder needs emptying. You consider whether you can hold it for the next two hours, but then you remember you already used the loos twice in Spoons, and the choice is no longer yours. The set is starting, but the seal is broken, and the night is doomed.

Reluctantly, you pass your drink to someone with a stronger bladder and wade back through the crowd toward the toilets. The queue is almost comically long and several women toward the front are doing the infamous I-need-to-piss-and-I-need-to-piss-soon jig. A cubicle opens up and the entire queue silently agrees that one particularly desperate looking girl should be allowed to skip ahead; within seconds, an audible sigh of relief can be heard above the roaring waterfall of her urine gushing into the toilet bowl. The other women take this as a symbol of her gratitude. You see, one of the many issues surrounding gendered toilets – and forgive me if this sounds petty – is the imbalance in queues experienced by men vs women. Often the line for the ladies’ will be at least double that as for the men’s, which means we waste twice as much time in the bogs and not the boogie. Urinals seem to be a much quicker deed, and male friends often complain about having to wait around for ages after they’ve pissed. I suppose that’s just a small price to pay in return for God’s gift of a small external hosepipe that allows you to relieve yourself whenever you need.

The queue moves at a painstaking pace that makes you question if you’ll catch any of the one name you recognised on the lineup. Eventually, just as you think you might give up and do your business in the sink, you make it into one of the toilets – posse in tow. Despite being roughly the size of a sardine can, I should clarify that there is a special feature of women’s toilet cubicles unique to the nighttime; most women will stick to solo excretion activities during working hours. But past 8 pm, each cubicle becomes a tardis. Whilst there is no logic behind cramming into one toilet and taking it in turns to watch each other piss, it is clear sacrilege to abandon your comrades at this stage and up to 5 women can often be caught squeezing in and edging the door shut. Here, inside the safety of the sardine can, there is no room for shyness and pants are dropped without hesitation. You apologise to your friend as you realise that this is more than just a wee but she laughs it off; she’s already changing her tampon, acts that effectuate friendships like nothing else. The trickiest manoeuvres are accomplished by those wearing bodysuits and playsuits – removing such garments when there isn’t even room to scratch your own nose is no mean feat – and yet, here in the magical wonderland of the ladies loos, there is no ridicule for having to strip completely naked in order to wee. If anything, it is welcomed.

On the back of the doors are etchings of a decade or so of “[I n s e r t   n a m e ] woz ‘ere 2009”, tags and secret messages. I’ve seen everything on the back of toilet doors – from phone numbers, to self-portraits, to full blown poems. An extended reddit forum endorses veganism, with replies reminding toilet users to love themselves as well as the animals. Laura’s declaration of love for her “bffl” Sophie is partially eclipsed by a sticker promoting a stick-and-poke tattoo start-up. You could sit in there all day reading the eloquent elegies of our ancestors, all determined to be remembered for their visit to this confined space.

Not wanting to delay the women still queuing any longer, you leave the cubicle and head to the sinks. Hands are washed quickly (the twice over rendition of Happy Birthday is more of a speedcore remix), maximising mirror time. It is here that the real magic happens. Over sinks, outfits are complimented by complete strangers, makeup is borrowed, occasionally tears are shed. Over sinks, friendships are formed. Perhaps a strange confidence overcomes the female population as they look at each other in the mirror rather than face to face, but I have had more conversations with strangers in the women’s toilets than anywhere else. It is here that you are asked if you are ok, reminded that you are beautiful, added on Facebook, told to have a good night. The kindness experience experienced over sinks in women’s toilets is incomparable, a marker of the compassion that crosses social constructs.

And just as your ego has inflated enough to make your return to the dancefloor, you spot her in the corner. Quiet and smiling, headphones in, minding her own business, she never skips a night out – the most loyal of all the women there tonight. In every toilet, in every club, at every event in every city across the country (or at least London), there is always a lady selling lollipops, deodorant, and individual squirts of your favourite perfume. She sits, often in silence, handing out hand towels and whatever else you may need. I wonder how much money she makes a night, I hope she know we appreciate her presence.

On this day, created to celebrate the social, economical, cultural and political endeavours of women across the globe, it is important to acknowledge all women. Not just the role models and the women who change the world, but anyone who identifies as a woman deserves recognition on this day. From mums, to daughters, to wives and sisters, especially women still struggling to obtain basic rights. I hope that all women know that they are loved and appreciated. I saw recently that during a women’s football match, one of the players was wearing a hijab. As it slipped off and she knelt to fix it, a small group of her opponents huddled around, protecting her from view. This is what IWD is about – celebrating sisterhood, and the acts of respect and kindness that transcend race, religion or social class. Looking out for, and appreciating each other as women and as people.

But what I really want to celebrate this International Women’s day are the women’s toilets. Though I hope that more establishments will move toward a more inclusive non-gendered approach in the future, for now I want to appraise the safe space that has been created. I want to make sure every woman, every human, knows that they are welcome in this safe space, that however they identify, there is always a sisterhood waiting for them. As someone who has never struggled with gender identity, I apologise to those who do not categorise themselves within the binary and may feel excluded by the gendered toilets that I have described above, but I hope that they feel welcome in whichever bathrooms they feel most comfortable in. So happy 8th March – and a warm welcome to our bathroom-bound community.

Veganuary: Tried and Tested

Two weeks into 2020, I wonder who has stuck to their resolutions. Has January been as dry as everyone anticipated? How many new gym memberships have been left untouched? If anyone decided to try going vegan for January (coined ‘Veganuary’), and has stuck to it, well done! As a vegetarian for four years running, I choose not to commit to the vegan label for a number of reasons. I’m not entirely sure it’s viable with my current lifestyle and I try to avoid fixating on food choices so heavily. More than anything, I just bloody love eggs. Knowing this, I was gifted an egg poacher for Christmas, and thus condemned to another year of un-vegan behaviour, in my excitement to use my new tool. So, though I can’t take the vow of Veganism, I have tried six of the newest high-street vegan options and reviewed them for the benefit of anyone who is going plant-based in 2020.

Veggie Dippers, McDonalds

A little overpriced at £3.39 for 4, the McDonald’s veggie dippers are a little underwhelming. Advertised as “a tasty blend of red pepper and sundried tomato pesto, all coated in crispy golden breadcrumbs”, these glorified goujons lack any real flavour and, hence, required me to drown them in BBQ sauce. Be careful which dip you dunk into though, as the regular BBQ sauce may be suitable for vegans but the smoky BBQ sauce contains honey, thus is not. The manufacture of the strips meant that the vegetables within don’t hold together too well and, after one bite, the already flaccid dipper crumbles into smaller, less satisfying particulates. You have to hand it to McDonalds though, they are both vegan certified by the Vegetarian Society and gluten free.

Vegan ‘Steak’ Bake, Greggs

Had I ever tried a carnivore’s steak bake, I would’ve known that this particular flavour isn’t to my liking. But I hadn’t, and so I was left walking down the high street nibbling at something an old geezer might enjoy with a packet of cheese & onion Walker’s and a pint of warm lager. I’ll try not to be to biased as I’ve heard other people rave about this Quorn-based pastry, but it is my review after all. Izzy, 22, from Surrey says that the vegan no-steak bake is “crispy” and “salty”, filled with flavour. “It tasted like a faux meaty pie. And baby, I love pie”, says Izzy. Sorry Izzy, but the rich gravy and hot onions have a slightly odd taste. Like an oily beef stew – perfect for vegans! Despite a good filling to pastry ratio, the overall product is no match for the vegan sausage roll that Greggs brought out back in March 2019, and I won’t be forking out another £1.55 on this crap.

Vegan Suika ‘Tuna’, Wagamama

For something a bit more upmarket, get yourself to Wagamama in your lunch break to try something from their extensive vegan menu. Make sure to start with a side of the Bang Bang cauliflower; you won’t be disappointed by these deliciously spicy firecracker veggies, infused with ginger and coriander. Follow this up with the vegan suika ‘tuna’ – a culinary masterpiece comprised of a dehydrated watermelon ‘steak’. This is exactly the kind of thing Heston Blumenthal would’ve concocted on daytime television, probably wearing a lab coat for dramatic effect, but the result is a decent fish alternative. As someone who has never been a fan of seafood, spending £12.95 on this dish was a risky move, and yet I was pleasantly surprised. The texture, though strange, is what I would imagine pan-seared fish to be like and yet lacks the fishy flavour that I despise; instead, the suika (meaning watermelon in Japanese) is bursting with flavour, which is complimented nicely by wok fried kale and miso sesame-coated broccoli. And why have regular broccoli when you can have tenderstem, right? The avocado, tofu and edamame guacamole is a nice touch with its creamy consistency, but a little mismatched with the rest of the dish. However, paired with the vegan positive juice (as suggested by Wagamama themselves) this meal is packed full of punchy flavours and hands-down one of the most insane creations that I’ve ever tried.

Zero Chicken Burger, KFC

11 spices, ZERO chicken. You’ve seen the campaign, and KFC’s latest ‘vegan option’ doesn’t disappoint. KFC’s food development team must’ve been having the fried chicken version of writer’s block the Quorn fillet is cooked with the original KFC herbs and spices, smothered with mayo, and slapped in a bun with a sprinkle of lettuce. It may be lacking Wagamama’s creativity, but what I like about this burger is that it sticks to the formula that the fast food giant’s customers seemingly love, and it’s pretty tasty. I would even go so far to say that the zero chicken burger tasted almost identical to one of their 99p chicken fillet, especially for the handful of vegan customers that were accidentally fed the meat versions of this meal and subsequently fell ill, as their bodies struggled to digest a type of protein that it hadn’t eaten in years. And, as if things couldn’t get any worse for KFC, the also came under fire for the fact that they are unable to offer the vegan burger as a meal, because their fries are cooked in the same oil as the popcorn chicken. At least they don’t put chicken fat in the gravy. Cheers Colonel Sanders – at least you tried…

Vegan Smoky ‘Ham’ and Cheeze Toastie, Costa

Pret’s three Veggie only restaurants in London is a bit extra if you ask me. Costa, meanwhile, are keeping it real with their vegan version of a classic comfort food. Quorn’s smoky ham is sandwiched between two slices of eggless bread, along with a thick layer of a coconut-based cheese. Yum. The “smoky” ham may as well not be there as it doesn’t add much, but I must say that the overall effect is very tasty indeed. Once the barista toasts the sandwich to perfection, the cheese has that melty, oozy texture that so many vegan cheeses lack; and at just £3.05, this makes for a very reasonable lunch.

Meatless Marinara, Subway

Of all the vegan options I’ve tried so far, this is probably one of my favourites. Unlike Wagamama’s wild menu, Subway have simply recreated one of their most popular sandwiches for the plant-based population. The cheese may lack flavour, but the ‘meatless balls’ make up for this with their meaty texture and rich flavour. The marinara sauce is as delicious as ever, and can be supplemented with a small range of vegan dressings. I chose a scrumptious vegan aioli, hiding my dairy iced coffee can. Growing paranoid that the sandwich artisté might foil my vegan disguise, I decided to play into the role by inquiring as to whether my choice of bread (9 grain, seeded) was also vegan. It turns out all of the bread at this particular Subway branch was vegan, and I committed to my plant-based masquerade by adding salad to my Sub. Somehow, the jalapeño-olive-spinach combo wasn’t enough, and as I paid him the £3.79 that this 6-inch cost, he asked me if I was actually vegan. My false identity hanging in the balance, I scarpered to devour this delicious sub, and wished I’d gone for the footlong.

With Monzo incessantly reminding that I’ve been haemorrhaging my funds and have exceeded my monthly eating out budget in the first fortnight, I am taking an involuntary hiatus from taste-testing vegan options for now. The temptation to try the above was just too great, and I’m glad I got to try a good range – these new meat alternatives are great propaganda from those trying to proselytise us all to veganism. It’s just a shame that most of these are only available until January 31st. It’s heartening to see that a vegan diet is becoming more accessible and that the wider population are being encouraged to try meat alternatives, but it’s also important to note that buying products (even the vegan ones) from corporate fast food retailers is unlikely to reduce your environmental footprint, so you’d be better off boycotting Maccies and making your own lunch. Whether you’re going vegan or not this January, now is as good a time as ever to cut down on meat consumption, but I won’t harp on about the environmental (and health) benefits of doing so. Me? I’ll continue to be vegetarian and try to opt for more sustainable dietary choices, but with an egg poacher now at my disposal, I’m not ready to make the move to veganism just yet. `

A New Year’s Revolution

It’s that time of year again. “New year, new me” is thrust around with lacklustre and empty promises of revolutionary behavioural changes. It can be hard not to be triggered, with all of the speak of post-Christmas diets and fitness regimes; smokers will quit until the 4th or 5th of January, and a large number of the population will commit the first month to going vegan, giving up ‘junk food’ or abstaining from alcohol, before binging again on the 1st February.

As we jump into 2020, and list our resolutions for the coming year, there is a tendency to focus on what we consider to be our negative attributes, and how we can change these over the next 12 months. Admittedly, the new year is an opportunity, or perhaps an excuse, to start afresh, however, these resolutions typically stem from a negative mindset that does more harm than good in the long run. Internal reflection can quickly escalate to self-deprecation as we list our least favourite attributes and highlight what we would most like to change about ourselves rather than focusing on what we achieved in the previous year and can, therefore, aim to achieve in the next one. 

Setting unachievable goals usually leads to not broken resolutions, which can cause us to berate ourselves and feel disheartened. The statistics on whether or not New Year’s resolutions work are contradictory – some studies will tell you that 80 % don’t last past mid-Feb, whilst others will tell you that goalsetting makes you 10 times more likely to be successful in achieving said goals. The issue lies in envisioning resolutions as rules that we must stick to, and setting goals that entail drastic lifestyle changes. Promising yourself to never do something ever again is whimsical and, frankly, unlikely; equally, vowing to put a new habit in place every day won’t hold in the hectic schedule of normal life. There is no need to make goal maintenance stressful or arduous, and unattainable goals will only be detrimental to your esteem when you, inevitably, don’t quite reach them. They’re resolutions not revolutions, after all. Instead, set yourself a mix of short-term and long-term goals, with a focus on positive change. Keep the list short and sweet, which will prevent overwhelming yourself and enable you to focus your energy on these few resolutions. Short term goals should be succinct and achievable. Rather than aiming to quit bad habits, try to use positive reinforcement – for example, aiming to quit smoking by a certain date could be changed to increasing use of nicotine patches/a vape as a substitute. If you really can’t bear to not include some sort of fitness resolution, try to approach this from a goal-based mindset. Rather than promising that this will be the year you get dench or lose X pounds, set yourself a more specific marker that you can monitor; for example, trying out a new sport, being able to lift a certain weight, or running 5 km in a specific time. Have faith in your abilities and set a positive precedent for the new year!

Focus on yourself, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. New year’s resolutions naturally become a selfish exercise, so it’s important to acknowledge that there are wider issues. Make aims for yourself but remember to look out for your friends and family in the coming year, reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, or check-up more regularly on someone you know to be going through a rough time. Far too often, I’ve found that it takes a couple bottles of vino before even some of my closest friends will open up to each other, and I want to make 2020 the year that we finally stop crying on nights out and start talking – like, really talking. More than this, we must understand that as individuals we comprise just 0.00000013 % of the global population, but each one of us has a responsibility to contribute to the wider cause. There are small behaviours that we can adopt, which – multiplied by 7.8 billion – could have a significant impact on the world we live in. Buy a keep cup, or a funky, avocado-adorned Chilly’s bottle. Try meat-free Mondays, or Tuesdays, or any day that you can. Again, don’t get frustrated if you can’t commit to Veganuary, resolutions don’t need to be hard and fast rules – merely aims.

By posting my new year’s resolutions, I suppose that I’m committing not just to striving to achieve them, but to adopting the positive-reinforcement mentality that I’ve been waffling on about. I have no idea where 2020 will take me, and there 2020+ things I’d like to try, but at the very least I’d like to aim to:

–          go back to uni in September (specific resolution)

–          put myself first and continue to work toward self-love and acceptance, in particular body image (vague resolution)

–          write more, aiming for one blog a month (specific, monitorable resolution)

–          make the effort to ask my friends how they’re doing more regularly, and more soberly (wider picture resolution) 

– reduce my personal use of single-use plastic, no more buying plastic water bottles (much wider picture resolution)

At the turn of the last decade, I was 11 years old. I’d just started high school and met a whole bunch of new friends. Last night, these same friends gathered to celebrate the turn of the new decade and companionship that has spanned three. If in 2030 we could all spend New Year’s Eve together, it might be the most magical thing ever, but that’s 10 years away, and for now I’m pretty content in seeing where this year takes us all. Whatever you resolve to quit, take up, lose or achieve in the next year, make sure that you savour each and every one of the next 366 days – because before you know it you’ll be basting the turkey and unbuttoning your jeans all over again, and wondering where the hell 2020 went.

All the things I learnt at school

With special thanks to Edyta

Though I can’t say I’ve ever had to apply Pythagoras’ theorem in any day-to-day situation, nor had to relay the various steps in the formation of oxbow lakes, I can say with some level of certainty that I learnt a lot of useful things during my school years. I learnt to read and write, I learnt how to add and subtract, I even learnt how to make bread and butter pudding – part and parcel of going to a traditionalist single sex girls grammar school in Surrey. However, after 18 consecutive years in the education system, I decided to take a sabbatical from all of that learning; where did I end up? Back at school.

In lieu of attending my fourth year of university, I had an urge to try out a few career choices that I had been toying with. So, in September I began working as a one-to-one teaching assistant at a local primary school, something that usually received one of two reactions: either the aww-that’s-so-cute-working-with-kids-must-be-a-hoot spiel, or the oh.my.god.worst.nightmare.children.are.awful retort. I’d always enjoyed working as a swimming teacher, and the holidays are great, so why not? I have so much respect and admiration for the teachers who devote their lives to their profession, and for very little pay, but being a teacher takes more patience than all of the saints’ combined, and I realised very quickly that I was not a saint nor a teacher, hence I lasted just 8 weeks. However, in that time, I managed to experience all of the highs and lows of being a teacher, and I certainly learnt more than I did in my first round in reception:

  1. For a start, children are so utterly excitable and positive about even the tiniest of things. Us big-kids should take note. Adults like to whinge, whine and wax lyrical about the woes of life; if only we could see things through the eyes of our four-year-old selves. Somewhere along the line we all begin to lose that optimism, the sense that anything can be made into some sort of fun game or song, that the world (or at the very least, the playground) is your oyster, and that you can achieve absolutely anything. Kids have a tendency to boost their own esteem very easily, and who are we to say that they shouldn’t; whilst little Lucy is telling me that her handwriting is the best and that she’s going to be a princess or a popstar or maybe a ballerina, I’m berating myself for not knowing what I want to do with the rest of my life. The imagination I have seen over the past 2 months has been incomparable and infectious, and I have been inspired to view my own world with a more optimistic, childlike excitement. At the end of the day we’re all just taller, more boring kids.
  1. Make sure your voice is heard. If you have something to say, speak it, and make sure your intended audience is listening, articulate your truth and let everyone know you have an opinion. I listened to a lot of tiny, squeaky voices in those 2 months, and a lot of never-ending tales because children don’t have the same grasp on conversation as adults, and tend to speak at you, rather than to or with you. In all honesty, I can’t say that I ever truly cared to hear that John’s dad drives a blue car with 6 seats, or that Sammy had pizza for dinner last weekend, but I certainly learnt to feign interest. My point, however, is not that children are boring, but that they are unequivocally self-righteous and are not afraid to get their point across. Next time I’m uncertain of myself or what I have to say, I will simply remember that once a child told me 13 times that they really, really like Peppa Pig, and remember the value of my own opinion, even if my audience doesn’t want to hear it.
  1. School dinners have never, and will never change. Since our dear friend Jamie Oliver decided to thwart schoolchildren everywhere by banning our turkey twizzlers, dinner ladies have been serving the same ‘balanced’ meals – balanced being a codeword for bland and sloppy. No wonder half the food ends up on the floor when the lumps of mushy, mangled ingredients are already congealed before they reach the plate. I found I had a severe moral objection to forcing children to eat a whole plate of food that I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, marking one of many internal conflicts I encountered whilst working within institutional education, and I silently congratulated the parents who sent in packed lunches with fresh and identifiable ingredients. Highlighting the linearity of education in the UK, one of the dinner ladies looked identical to one who once served me my own school lunches – it took a lot of restraint not to ask her if today’s lunch options were just the leftovers from 2002.
  1. Life can be reduced to a simple carrot and stick manifesto. At first, I was surprised at how prominent this was in the early school years – if a child had done something even minutely positive, they were praised to the high heavens and showered in stickers and high-fives, whilst negative behaviours were met with stern warnings that led to time-out. Even in the youngest classes, the children were so quickly conditioned to know these outcomes, and how so-called ‘green choices’ would be rewarded and ‘red choices’ would only result in punishment; yet I quickly began to realise how inherent this system is even within my own life. The carrot and stick approach works so well because it teaches children that their actions have consequences and forces them to recognise their ability to choose between ‘green’ and ‘red’ in order to obtain reward. Adult life is really just an extension of this. If a child completes their handwriting worksheet, they get a smiley face and a well done; if adults go to work, they get paid. If a child pushes another child, they have to sit on the ‘thinking chair’ for 5 minutes; if an adult assaults someone, they’ll most likely go to prison. Over time, I became acutely aware of the positive and negative outcomes of my own actions, and how conditioned I was to chase rewards and avoid punishment. Maybe I’ve just been moulded by my own education, but the simplicity and applicability of this system is successful in forcing you to recognise acumen and the consequences of your decisions.
  1. Kids are gross, and unashamedly so. Within a week, I’d been farted on, dribbled on, and covered in snot. Whilst one child giggled and announced her own passing of gas to the classroom, another tugged my arm and asked, without embarrassment, if they could go for a poo. It never failed to amaze me how many children could blindly ignore the sinks and “wash-your-hands” symbols as they ran out of the bathrooms into the playground, nor how easy it was for food to end up anywhere except their mouths during lunchtime. On top of this, kids have absolutely zero awareness of personal space, so all of the mystery stains and substances that end up covering them from head to toe, usually ended up covering me too. I spent the first 2 weeks with a constant cold, before my immune system hardened to the fact I was going to be with these little virus-carriers for the long-run, and my concern shifted to a persistent phobia of catching the dreaded headlice. Pediculophobia, in case anyone was wondering. Essentially, schools are breeding grounds for germs and viruses, and it’s a miracle any teachers survive the term.
  1. Children are far more accepting of difference than adults. As a one-to-one for an autistic boy, I’ve become more aware of how we interact with people with special educational needs. “What’s wrong with him?” someone asked, when I described my role within the SEN team; and I found myself refraining from saying that there is nothing wrong with him, he just learns and interacts differently because he has autism. The fact that most adults will refer to a range of conditions or diagnoses as ‘learning difficulties’ is saddening, and the fact that as recent as 3 months ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about using this term myself, frustrates me. Neurotypical adults have a bad habit of pitying those different to themselves, whilst children can be far more understanding (or at least nonchalant) regarding said differences. Sure, they ask a lot of questions at first – “why is he crying?”, “why doesn’t he have to sit on the carpet like us?”, “why is he not good at sharing?” – but once they realise that everyone is a little bit different and are therefore treated as such, they quickly grow accustomed to the idea. More often than not, I was fortunate enough to experience the sweetness of watching the other children do my job for me – looking after the boy with autism and diffusing any situations that were causing him distress. I’ve never seen anything more heart-warming than this child, who once bit me so hard I had to get a tetanus shot, approaching another child to give them a hug because they’d let him go on the bike first. Perhaps because they haven’t yet been exposed to society’s prejudices, there is a lot to be taken from the way children interact – they might have a quick, tiny fisted punch-up because X said she wasn’t best friends with Y and didn’t want to play with her, but you can guarantee this has nothing to do with race, religion or any other kind of difference that adults might discriminate against.
  1. Teachers really don’t get paid enough. Teachers unions have been backlashing against the obscenely low wages for years, but only by seeing just how hard teachers work have I been enlightened. Imagine spending an entire academic term teaching phonics, only for a child to sound out “p-e-g… clip” during an illustrated reading test, spending your entire evening preparing classroom resources, only for them to be destroyed in minutes by hands that can’t even tie shoelaces. Though it is truly rewarding to see progress in the little ones, and I certainly grew attached to them and developed a personal interest in seeing them reach their full potential, it is incredibly demanding work that requires more tolerance than I could ever imagine. Though I finished at 3.45 pm every day, I came home physically drained and often ready for bed by 8. I met some of the most hardworking and inspiring teaching staff, that reinstated my confidence in the schooling system, and realised that they substituted financial benefit with emotional investment in their pupils’ wellbeing and progress. It’s just a shame that the majority of people will complain when their kid’s school has an INSET day for teachers’ pay strikes that force them to arrange alternative childcare, rather than supporting the adults that have so much control over their children’s early development and learning.
Images courtesy of my little sister’s diaries.

The main thing I learnt in my 2-month placement is that teaching just isn’t for me. As much as I enjoyed it short-term, I quickly realised that the staff-room isn’t a particularly fulfilling place, and that the kind of mental stimulation required in a teaching role doesn’t align with the kind that I need to keep my brain happy. At first, I struggled to admit that maybe I wasn’t quite cut out for it, and the genuine happiness I felt on rewarding days blinded me to this. Grateful to be given such an amazing opportunity, I came to the conclusion that it had been a productive 2 months that had convinced me not to do my PGCE after university, though sometimes you have to admit defeat. For now, I’ll continue working as a bartender, where I can converse with humans that have a wider repertoire than children’s television, but that’s not to say I won’t miss my 5-year-old friends. Teaching 1, Miss Hamilton 0; if anyone has any further career suggestions for me, I’d be more than happy to hear them.

Hospitality’s Heroes

With pay that barely scrapes minimum wage, let alone London living cost, and long, physical shifts at inconvenient hours, it’s a wonder anyone actually chooses to work in hospitality. Though it requires essentially no qualifications, it is not to be confused as an easy job. Upon returning to the UK to begin my gap year, I have also returned to working in hospitality, through which I gained a newfound respect for those that have put up with this for far longer than me. So, to hospitality’s heroes, the backbone of British brunching and boozing, thank you for your unwavering service to your queen and country.

Personally, I work in a pub as the second of three jobs and, actually, I really enjoy it – one of those gentrified gastropubs in Clapham, where yummy mummies order avo and poached eggs, with a bottle of prosecco on the side, it somehow retains that local boozer, rowdy-on-weekends energy that Britons seem to crave. The staff are great and (on paper) all I have to do is pour pints, collect glasses, and serve food – with a smile. However, this is easier said than done, especially when I finish working at a school at 3.45 pm and begin my bar shift at 5 pm, finishing at 11 pm (on a school night). No, it’s not rocket science, but it can be physically and emotionally draining when you are trying to provide tip-top customer service on less than 5 hours sleep. And the reality is that a large proportion of those working in hospitality are doing it ‘on the side’ per say, picking up shifts in addition to full time jobs, studying, or looking after their kids. There is little time to spare for eating or sleeping in between paying the bills, let alone time to kick back and neck a few pints. So, try to be a little more understanding if we accidentally give you normal tonic instead of slimline, but the fact of the matter is that we’re all tired, and that double G&T you just ordered costs more than my hourly wage…

Whilst the weekend warriors get to spend Friday through Sunday as they please, blowing off steam from a stressful week at the office, the hospitality crowd spend theirs serving, cleaning and diffusing barfights – excuse me if I don’t join the usual ‘TGIF’ rejoice. When you hungover yuppies crawl in begging for a Bloody Mary and Sunday brunch, remember those of us who stayed up later than you, cleaning up your mess, yet were still expected to be at work bright and early on Sunday morn. Complaints of horrendous hangovers fall on the deaf ears of those who would kill to be able to have Saturday night off to go out and get a little messy. Not that messy though, I’d like to think I would never spill that much of my food all over the floor, or smash 3 glasses consecutively, and I definitely wouldn’t be caught throwing up in the ladies after one too many vodka-lime-sodas – as some customers seem to think is acceptable behaviour just because its past 5 o’clock on Friday. I guess the advantage of being excluded from this periodic 3-day frenzy, is that Monday’s don’t seem so bad when you work a 7-day week.

Not to mention, Monday is payday, although even the cheapest glass of wine at my work costs more than I earn in an hour… Thankfully, to account for the insignificance of minimum wage, there are a small proportion of customers that tip, or at the very least leave their change. Especially when it comes to table service – I have essentially been your waitress/servant/bitch for the past hour or so, the least you can do is leave me a couple of quid for being so understanding when you changed your order three times, or clicked at me to get my attention for more drinks. No tip? Ok fine, I’ll whack the 12.5% ‘discretionary’ service charge on your bill at the end, which you probably won’t dispute because you don’t work in a pub; in fact, you’re probably on £55k a year. Maybe that will teach you some manners. I spend 7 hours a day teaching 5 year olds to say please and thank you, so it surprises me how often adults feel they are exempt from using such phrases. How much effort does it really take to say “cheers” when I hand over your pint? Remembering to say “3 Estrellas please” takes one second extra, hardly significant when you’ve been waiting at the bar to be served for at least 15 minutes (and who knows, that extra second might save you some spit in your beer).

The customers that do treat you like an actual human being (as opposed to a drink-serving, plate-clearing, glass-collecting robot) are few and far between, but they make your day. When working unsociable hours means you rarely get to see your friends and family, having some good old amicable banter with customers might just stop you from going insane. Success within hospitality is facilitated by what is essentially glorified flirting – not actually flirting, but being warm, perhaps a little cheeky.  It’s a fine line though, before certain patrons mistake you doing your job as an invitation to make a move: please stop winking at me over your ales, it’s not endearing and you’re old enough to be my dad. As frustrating as this can be (picture a balding, pot-bellied bloke slurring his words as he asks for your number), it is hilarious from a sober perspective and there’s a small part of me that begins to pity my male colleagues, who are far less likely to be offered free drinks. Accepting these accentuates my downfalls as a ‘feminist’.

At the end of the day, I suppose it would be foolish to hope that all customers will suddenly start tipping me twice as much, or stop getting so ridiculously drunk that we have to get security to forcibly remove them from the pub. And, I should clarify, I am most certainly not trying to eulogize myself. I’m a waitress/bartender: nothing more, nothing less. I don’t save lives, I pour pints. I guess I can only aspire that someone, anyone, might read this and reconsider how they treat hospitality staff, maybe even order an Aperol Spritz with a please.

REVIEW: TFL vs Sleeper Buses

It’s 5 pm. I’m buried several metres underground, beads of sweat rolling down my forehead as I am crushed by millions of other miserable sods. Somewhere nearby, a mother hushes her wailing child, drowning out the tinny overhead announcements. A bearded man whispers sweet nothings into his 5th can of K cider this afternoon. I finish flicking aimlessly through the mottled pages of yesterday’s Evening Standard, just in time for the carriage doors to open and vomit me out into the stuffy tunnel air, into the angry mob of morning commuters navigating the platforms. Ahh, London Underground – how I’ve missed it. No matter how hectic the tube gets during rush hour, there is something comforting about its regularity: the familiar feeling of bodies pressed up against you, the sprint to a carriage before the doors close, trying to remain upright as the train lurches along the tracks. Brits (Londoners in particular) are known for their complaints, the brunt of which are aimed at transport and the weather, but after 2 months spent travelling in Southeast Asia, I have come to truly appreciate the value of reliable transport. I feel invincible as I tap my Oyster card boarding the bus home, and shudder at the memories of the buses, motorbikes, boats and trains I used to get around Asia – all of which I have reviewed below.

SINGAPORE’s well developed metro system was the closest thing to the northern line that SE Asia had to offer. Being both extremely clean and easy to navigate (thanks to the availability of Citymapper in this region), I was seriously impressed, and perhaps a little disappointed that I was only staying just over 24 hours here … 9/10.

My VIETNAMESE sleeper bus experience is admittedly tainted – unfortunately, I was suffering from the first of many bouts of food poisoning and didn’t sleep a wink. Although the buses here tend to be more organised, the seats are a hybrid between a coach seat and a sun lounger, the end result being a rigid structure that isn’t all that comfortable… To add to my traumatic journey, upon arriving in the middle of Phong Na national park at 5am, our homestay host had forgotten to set his alarm, forcing us to walk in the pitch dark. For the first time that day, I was metaphorically shitting myself from fear, rather than due to some dodgy fresh spring rolls. Needless to say, my memories of Vietnam’s transport systems aren’t the fondest… 5/10

The one overnight bus I took in CAMBODIA was relatively unremarkable, although the driver did forget to wake us up and dropped us several kilometres away from our intended destination. Nothing major. The ferries, however, are significantly less modern than those I experienced elsewhere, closer in style to Viking longboats than the speedboats normally used to transport tourists. There is no formal and nowhere to store your luggage, but I can vouch that they will get you safely to your next island, even if you do spend the entire boat trip fearing for your life… 6/10

LAOS’ sleeper buses were surprisingly comfortable, perhaps rivaling some of the hostel beds we slept in. Not much more than rows of mattresses, the buses offered far more suitable sleeping option than Vietnam’s rigid chair-beds and one bus even offered delivered ‘room service’: a polystyrene container of one of my favourite dishes, fried rice. Snuggled up with an adorable smurf-themed duvet and pillow (picture attached), I had one of my best night’s sleeps yet, although I can attribute a large part of this to the fact that I was travelling with an abnormally small friend of mine, meaning the bed we had to share felt reasonably spacious. If you are travelling alone, you will almost certainly find yourself up close and personal with a complete stranger, though the narrow ‘doubles’ are barely more than a fat-man’s single mattress, so prepare to get friendly. It’s safe to say, these buses are not made for people 6 ft or above… 7/10

Being the most touristy of all of the places I visited, I had high hopes for THAILAND’s transport systems. Our overnight bus from Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand was little more than a coach, the seats reclining only slightly further than normal. There was very little communication from the travel company, who dropped us off at a random roadside restaurant at 3am, without any indication of when our next bus would arrive. This was a common theme throughout my travels, with long journeys being divided into several smaller trips, which you are shepherded between with very little information; the important thing to remember, as disorganised as the system may seem, is that you will get from A to B… eventually! It was in Thailand that I experienced my first overnight boat; I hope that it was my last. The setup was promising: a large wooden ferry lined with double mattresses and bunk beds, it felt like a huge communal sleepover and perhaps might’ve been quite enjoyable had it not been for the storm that had been brewing all day. By the time we boarded, there was a lightning storm on the horizon, but the boat set out into the choppy waters regardless. It is difficult not to panic when your boat feels as though it may topple over at any point, and the sensation of being gently rocked to sleep by the open waters quickly subsided; I should apologise to the stranger next to me, wherever he may be, for repeatedly whacking into him as a particularly powerful wave thrusted the boat sideways… 4/10.

The overnight buses in MYANMAR run on their own schedule, especially during rainy seasons when the roads are subject to severe flooding and your ride may be more than 2 hours late. The bus itself is not unbearable, especially as the sun begins to rise and you get the most insane views of the Burmese countryside. If you can bear 7 hours of rickety railroad and hard seating, the train between Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lwin also offers stunning scenery, highlighted by the Gokteik Viaduct. For just 1200 MMK (less than $1US), you can have all the thrill and excitement of your favourite theme park ride at just a fraction of the price! The open windows combined with the speed of the train provide natural air conditioning. Of course, if you are averse to the authentic experience of being whipped in the face by the occasional branch, I suggest you take an aisle seat, or perhaps the more luxurious taxi option… 6/10.

Despite my complaining, I’d happily take all of those sleeper buses again if it meant I could still be travelling. It’s nice to be back but I’m already bored and planning my next great adventure. To top it all off, my car broke down this weekend, meaning I now have to get public transport everywhere. Where I live is quite well connected, so this isn’t too much hassle; I trust that TFL will get me from A to B relatively unscathed, though I hope train delays don’t make me late during my first week in a full-time job. My only grievance is that the Oyster card travel cap for a single day has risen to £10.10, at least double the price of any transport I took in Asia… sort it out Boris.

Elephant Tourism – a moral dilemma

There are thought to be fewer than 5000 Asian elephants remaining in Thailand, of which 4000 are held in captivity. This follows a rapid decrease from around 100,000 elephants in the 1900s, largely due to habitat decline and poaching. Elephas maximas is now a protected endangered species, however, until 1989 when the Thai government banned logging in all protected areas, a huge proportion of the population was being used for labour. The ban had the secondary effect of removing many elephants from this line of work, although the consequence of this was a boom in elephant tourism. Many were taken and trained to be ridden, or to perform tricks in circuses. Over the past decade or so, many studies have been conducted by organisations such as World Animal Protection and the WWF, which have highlighted issues with these practices and (thankfully) led to a slow move towards more ethical elephant tourism. When visiting Thailand, I was intrigued to see this for myself, though I held reservations about the morality of it all.

Maerim elephant sanctuary overall hosted a fun and educational experience, costing just over 1800 Baht for a full day (including lunch). Having done as much research as possible prior to booking an elephant experience, I had high expectations, and hoped that it really was as ethical as I had heard from other travellers who had visited. Though the handling of the animals was not as warm and fluffy as you would like to imagine, the love that the manager and elephant guardians have for their elephants transcends all doubt, and (as experts) they are eager to teach visitors as much as possible about the species. Our day began with an informative video about elephant cruelty, followed by an explanation of the individual histories of the 6 elephants owned by the sanctuary, bought from an array of different conditions ranging from Phuket’s circuses to logging farms on the Western border with Myanmar; there is no beating around the bush here, and the lead mahout describes graphically what he has seen when visiting such places. Captive elephants are tamed using fear-based methods. Phajaan describes the gruelling process of breaking a young elephant’s spirit, through intensive physical abuse. They then live for years in unnatural settings with humans that condition their behaviours, so I can understand that it would be difficult to release them into the wild directly following their rescue from inhumane logging camps or tourism centres. The optimist within me can see that the living conditions within the sanctuaries and conservation centres are far better than the places they were rescued from, and here they can be taught to love and be loved again.

But elephants never forget, and the mistreatment they have received in the past has damaged their relationships not just with humans, but with each other. Their brutal histories are evidenced by the lack of hair on their tails, their banded hind legs, and the scars and lumps covering their wrinkled skin. It was easy to see that the interaction between the 6 members of this dysfunctional family was strained, especially for the newest member, who had been rescued from a logging farm just 9 months prior to our visit, and remained on the outskirts of the herd. As one of the most emotionally complex animals, it is our understanding that elephants can actually die of loneliness and/or heartbreak; and yet, their wild herds typically spanning 8-100 individuals have been reduced to just a handful of elephants per sanctuary. Families and loved ones parted. Brothers separated from brothers. Babies taken from mothers. It is easy to understand why these social mammals have become so introverted and solitary.

Furthermore, it is hard to decipher whether or not the elephants are truly happy, and if these milder forms of elephant tourism are any better. As much as I enjoyed spending time with the elephants, the sceptic within me recognised that there was really no way of knowing what went on behind closed doors, when all of the excitable tourists go home and the elephant carers are left counting the money. How could we be sure that these elephants hadn’t received any inhumane training post-rescue, in order to ensure that they interact in a friendly and safe way? How much did I believe that the ropes (albeit loose) around their necks were an absolute necessity? How do I, an expert in neither animal behaviour nor their welfare, decide what a happy elephant looks like? 8 acres for the 6 elephants sounds like a lot but when I asked if they were allowed to roam freely, the answer was most certainly not. Though there was no particular pressure on the elephants to interact with us, there was something eerily uncomfortable about seeing the next group of tourists arrive and go through the same motions as we had earlier in the day, feeding and trekking with the elephants. When do the elephants get a day off? I suppose one simply has to trust that the mahouts have the elephants’ best interests at heart, and remember that being fed and bathed three times a day is a much nicer alternative to the horrifying mistreatment they have previously been exposed to. Learning about the exploitation of such creatures for human benefit, and spreading word of our own experiences, is the best way we can positively contribute to their lives. But, somehow, the unanswered questions maintain my internal conflict.

A chained elephant I saw in Laos, being ridden by a local who repeatedly hit the animal on the head with the wooden stick he is holding.

The elephant tourism problem spans across Asia, too, and though awareness of animal rights is increasing in Thailand, many elephants are still used for logging and tourism throughout Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and India. I, personally, can vouch for this, having seen chained elephants being prodded with sticks in Laos. Some tourists we encountered in the beautiful Angkor Wot temples even claimed the elephants they were about to ride weren’t necessarily unhappy. Many tours in Thailand still offer elephant rides, with no government regulation on such activities. It shocks me that tourists and backpackers would still consider partaking in this, despite so many reports stating the distress this can cause an elephant and how to find more ethical alternatives. Then again, am I any better? I chose to ignore my moral turmoil, and still technically contributed to elephant tourism, paying my money and taking photos, which I will most likely post on social media accounts – I am disappointed at my lack of restraint. I consider myself a relatively moral person, but retrospectively I can’t help but ponder on how much these elephant sanctuaries differ to the zoos and aquariums that make me feel so uncomfortable. I hope that 10 years in the future we won’t be feeling the same level of regret regarding elephants as we feel now about Seaworld etc.

Sure, we can all give ourselves a pat on the back for being ‘conscious’ travellers and visiting these so-called ‘sanctuaries’ where riding and hooks are prohibited, but our responsibility to these colossal creatures goes beyond that. Only by questioning the actions of even the most ‘ethical’ of elephant experiences, do we place pressure on the management to ensure that the elephants get the care that they truly deserve.