I hate running. I hate any form of exercise that doesn't have some other point to it, like going for a hike through beautiful landscape or riding a horse. I've been on loads of sports teams and the competitive aspect of them bored me to tears. I used to run or cycle to Greenwich, and I'd often end up rewarding myself with a nice sticky bun and coffee in the wonderful bakery there.
I love food so much that I know I need to exercise. I also love my work, and it's more than a full-time job, it's about four jobs. So the obvious solution for me is to do a form of exercise that I can do quickly and efficiently. I tried the local pool, but a visit, with all the faffing about, would take between two and three hours, leave me stinking of chlorine, and I could write a whole other blog post (or novel) about the weird and embarrassing things that happened there.
So running it is, fully clothed; I can throw open my front door, do it, come home, wash, and get to work. I once even kind of, well, not enjoyed it, but got to the place where I could run ten miles and feel okay. That was in rural Lancashire, and I could see lambs being born, pretty old cottages, big sky. I'd run to the Cumbria border, smack the road sign satisfyingly with my hand, then run back. Now I run in London. It's horrible. And this is why:
Every friggin' day. Sometimes I get one comment, sometimes five or six. Often mocking marriage proposals. Guys constantly feel the need to describe all the various bits of my body to me, as though I don't know how I look. Sometimes they say what they'd like to do to those various bits, particularly to and up my backside (which is ample, and what of it?). Half the time they're complimentary, half of the time it sounds like they're questioning my very right to be running in public since I don't look like a fit runner. All of the comments are annoying.
...Actually, once it was amusing, when it came from a woman. She was dressed in a burqa and when she saw me, her face lit up with an enormous smile, and her hands made sculpting motions in the air. 'Your body, your hips, your backside, they are WONDERFUL'. That incident made me blush far more than any of the things any of the men had said, but I didn't hate it, it made me go a bit giggly inside, not knowing what to think.
Yesterday I read this article by a woman in Seattle named Courtney Meaker, who sounds an awful lot like me. I'm originally from the Seattle area, I'm no lightweight, we even look a bit alike, and we both get harassed. She even gets harassed when she walks, which may reflect an attitude in Seattle where people are suspicious of anyone who's on a main road, outside of a park or designated exercise area, and who isn't driving. At least in London, people are used to seeing other people walk, which is one of the reasons I want to live here. It's an interesting article, quite a grim read: Walking While Fat and Female - Or, Why I Don't Care Not All Men are Like That.
I hadn't really thought about this 'Not All Men!' thing, but when I grump occasionally on Twitter about my morning run, guys sometimes have popped up to say, 'It's not all men! We're not all like that!'. That's okay, I know all men are not like that. In the comments to Meaker's article, there are a couple comics on this subject, including this one by Matt Lubchansky:
And more simply:
Now I don't want to go on a big rant about how our culture has gone to the dogs; on the contrary, I think I live in the best possible time for women so far in history. I can do pretty much what I like and go where I want, I can decide if I want or don't want children, I can have a good job. I can be healthy with good medicine, I can have my terrible eyesight corrected with good glasses, I LOVE my culture right now. I notice on the Internet that the blog posts which go viral are the ones that make people gasp with horror and get them very angry. A friend said to me, 'Outrage is the currency of the Internet'. People like a good outrage every day, and they feel like they're better people when they get outraged and click 'like' or 'share' on Facebook. Well, I don't care if I make you outraged, I'd rather make you think, calmly and constructively. Which is one reason why this post will never be read more than a couple hundred people, at most.
It's not enough to boil the issue down to SEXISM. Sexism is too wide in its a scope. I want to make great picture books, not spend my life on the Internet, banging on about how horrible sexism is, and highlighting each time it happens. What Meeker and I are dealing with is tangled in a lot of complex issues: yes, sexism, but Meaker's also dealing with Americans' strange relationship to driving, as something that defines and gives value to a person. I'm also dealing with sexism, but also with cultural misunderstandings, bullying, attitudes toward personal space and attitudes toward exercise. And I'll say one thing that makes me a bit nervous to say: almost every single comment I get in my neighbourhood comes from a black man with an African or Caribbean accent. I do get comments from white men, but only once every ten runs or so. I NEVER get comments from black men with British accents. I'm very reluctant to point this out on Twitter because I worry my observation will get warped by other people into an anti-black, anti-immigration statement. And nothing could be further from the truth: I'm an immigrant myself, and I've brought some of my own ugly cultural habits with me.
With these guys, I'm not sure they're aware how much they're being total jerks. There's a lot more appreciation for full figures in parts of Africa and the Caribbean, and they may actually think they're being complimentary. African women in my neighbourhood wear dresses that emphasise the size of their bums. Here's a comic I once made about it:
I suspect some of the guys see their remarks as affectionate teasing rather than bullying. I've noticed generally that guys from these cultures are very chatty in public, and comment on everything. And I have a theory that the reason I've never had a single comment from a black man with a British accent is that these guys find their dads and their dads' friends' behaviour horribly embarrassing, and veer the other way, being even more polite than non-black guys. (That's just my totally unfounded theory.) But I can't get inside their heads, I don't really know what motivates any of them. And yes, whatever cultural sensitivity I might have, their comments are still VERY ANNOYING. I've only ever seen one other chubby girl jogging in our park, and just once. I wonder why she stopped, and feel a bit sad. Now it's just sleek runners with greyhound physiques. And me, sometimes.
A local friend on Facebook offered to give me some self-defense classes. But I don't actually feel threatened by these guys, possibly because I'm so large, but also, I think it's just talk. It's the constant feed of it that's so demoralising. When I get set to go on my run, I feel a wash of dread pour over me. It's bad enough having to exercise, but WHY can't these guys just leave me alone? Top comments from Meaker's article:
Someone suggested to me that I do yoga instead. Another suggested wearing headphones. Good suggestions, but I felt my shackles go up: why MUST I change my behaviour because of these guys? I WANT fresh air, I don't want to go into a sweaty, horrible gym or yoga studio; I've decided running is the most convenient thing for me. As for headphones, I listen to music all day in my studio, so I really want to be alone with my thoughts and hear the sounds of the world around me - the birds, the wind, conversations, traffic that might pose a danger, everything except these men's comments. So I stick out my lower lip and head out, with pigheaded determination. Or not. In fact, I should be running now, but I'm BLOGGING instead. Yes.
But I was saying that I wish people could think calmly and constructively about this subject. I don't know how to address it, it's so complicated. I can't change a culture way off in Africa or the Caribbean. And I'm no expert on exercise and public spaces. So where can I look, to make things better?
Well, public space and exercise: One thing I noticed when I went to China was that there was public exercise equipment dotted everywhere around the cities, particularly in Beijing. My family and I went at 8am to Tiantan Park and saw such a wonderful array of people exercising, young and old, all different shapes. Some people, particularly old people, used the time to socialise as well as exercise, and other people seemed contentedly lost in their own little worlds. Some people were doing slightly odd things, like cracking bullwhips or going through strange stretches, but no one paid any notice (except me and my ogling family). Here's some video footage I shot; some of the stuff almost moved me to tears, it seemed so right.
Beijing is a much more homogeneous society, there wasn't the same clash of cultures that happens in my local park. But I loved the way that outdoor exercise was normal, and promoted by the availability of exercise equipment everywhere. We had some equipment recently put into one of our local parks, but there are no panels explaining how to use the equipment, and the strange wooden nubbins and bars are a total mystery to me. I half-heartedly tried out a few things on them, but the movements didn't feel right. I once spotted some equipment more like Beijing's in a park by the Holloway Road. I wish we had Beijing's culture of exercise, it would make me more cheerful about getting old. But I think the exercise comes out of a rather repressive history, where everyone was MADE to exercise at certain times, and a lot of people in Britain won't want to do something for the exact reason that someone in authority is telling them that they're supposed to do it. So I don't know if we could bring over that part of Chinese culture.
The other thing is confidence. If we can't change the guys in our neighbourhood, maybe we can help give our local girls more confidence that their bodies are okay, and it doesn't matter what guys tell them. I can't completely counter the barrage of body dictates girls get every day, but at least I can draw some girls into my books who are beautiful and not stick-thin. I'm particularly proud of Iris the mermaid from Oliver and the Seawigs, she's my alter-ego. I think I can rightly claim that she has the biggest backside of any mermaid in children's publishing at the moment. And she's LOVELY.
It also cheers me up a bit, that fat or less fat, there are positives to being both. If I'm less fat, I fit better into my clothes and feel better when my legs don't rub. But when I'm a bit fatter, I think, hey, maybe I can be an inspiration to girls like me, who think they have to be thin to succeed in what they do. It's not true, you can go on stage, and wear fabulous costumes, and do it all WHILE CHUBBY. Or, at least, we ought to be able to. I feel like a pioneer.
That gives me enough hope to go on my run now. ...If I can find my shoes.