My body, Gender and Me

CW I’ll be chatting about my weight a fair chunk and body image issues

And people wonder why my photos are almost exclusively neck down

When I dress femme, I am very aware that my look is “that goth who’s off to have sex with your dad” and I’m very okay with that. I keep leaning toward ’50s style dresses, normally in black, or black and white, or even red if I’m feeling adventurous, but annoyingly with that era, they sorta require a tight waist which is something I don’t naturally have. It’s that or I dress as an Edgar Allan Hoe. Preppy goth wench with little regard for their ankles or the common decencies of society, as pictured here.

Which means, for the first time in my life, I have reached a disconnect between how I want to look and how I actually appear.

During lockdown I’ve realised more than ever how much my weight is linked to my noggin’. At the beginning of lockdown I was probably at the heaviest I’ve ever been, topping out at nearly 260lbs on my scales and after realising that I was both a) grossly obese and, b) going to die young, spent about 6 months losing 40lbs and suddenly I looked great (read – less fat) and I felt really good about what I’d done. And then I stopped losing weight. The dopamine hit of looking at the scales was replaced at first by confusion then annoyance and finally depression as the numbers started to climb back up again. With the unsettling rumblings of sadness came the desire and compulsion to eat again, starting a lovely downward spiral towards an inevitable undoing of all the hard work that I’d done.

Good news, I’ve noticed the issue and am working hard to rectify it. I’m not going to hit my target weight any time soon, but I’m at least confident in my ability to lose weight given what I have done over the past year or so. I do have a target weight in mind, I’m just not going to share it on the blog. Instead, I’d much rather wait for the compliments to roll in about how trim I am so I can casually mention how many pounds I have lost, as an act of unnerving confidence and smugness.

Until then, it could well just be that I don’t yet know how to dress for my shape and size in clothes that are socially feminine. It’s not a concept that I expected to grasp overnight given that it takes people assigned female at birth a good chunk of their life to discover and perfect, and even then our body shapes change pretty much non-stop. But knowing that doesn’t stop the near constant feeling of ‘ergh’ towards my body. Which isn’t great, y’know?

I think I look best with a tighter waist, both when I’m in boy mode or feeling femme. And when I’m wearing my ’50s midi or pencil dresses, I have turn to the dreaded (but highly effective) corset to get the job done. Which is fine, but it’s not particularly comfortable. Thing is , it’s the shape of my body I find most pleasing, looking back through old Facebook photos and videos it’s the one I regret losing the most. I look like an absolute twink of a lad, the thin outline of a 6 pack across my stomach and those hip line (those ones, you know the ones) just poking above the waist-line of grey skinny jeans that still sit in the bottom of my cupboard, taunting me with the knowledge I’ll never fit in them again.

Now, I know I will never look like that again, at least not without contracting some vast, sickly debilitating illness and I have no plans to do so. It’s an unrealistic goal to aim for, and if 4 years working in corporate offices have taught me anything it’s that if a goal isn’t SMART then it’s dumb (God, I hate myself). And as rational as I try to be, as rational as I like to think I am, that ‘ideal’ will always be there, in the back of my mind. Those nights when I would dance and dance for hours, without sweating or feeling too hot or feeling myself jiggle, they’re by all intents and purposes behind me and should I not just let them go? Probably.

Except I know it can be done. The question is, will I?

I bought tits recently. It’s quite a sudden gear change, I know, but there’s method behind the madness, hopefully. The power of tits cannot be understated, not only because when they arrived I literally wept with some weird gender affirmation magic, but also because they make my chest bigger (literally the point of them) and so they make my waist look smaller in comparison. Add the corset back into the equation and suddenly I have the general shape that I’ve been looking for for what might be years. I put on something slutty and goth, or something with a cute, ’50s aesthetic and I see someone in the mirror who looks right in their skin.

This raises yet another question, because that’s what this aimless ramble needs: is my general apathy towards my body a rebellion against how very manly it looks, whereas I seem to be desperate for it to be androgynous at least? Could be. Is this a gender crisis? I don’t really know, I’ve not really had one before, more sort of a gender predicament or a number of small gender setbacks. But wearing the clothes that I like, that fit, wearing a chest (38DD because I’m apparently a big girl)) it just looks right. and makes me happy.

Could it be that I don’t actually need to lose the weight, change my shape, but just need to wear my clothes better and as they were intended? Perhaps.

Does that knowledge change my weird relationship with my body and our love/hate relationship? Nope.

I’m only at the first few steps along my journey of gender and body positivity, but unlike most journeys I have no idea where this one will end and wasn’t given a map when I set off. I’m sort of blindly stumbling through an overgrown bridleway, hoping that through the next crop of thicket there will be a wooden side with a little yellow arrow guiding the way. I’m currently ankle deep in the mud of ‘you look like ew and feel ugly AF’, but I’m wading through. Fingers crossed it’s only a puddle and not a bog.

Anyway, it’s really hot. bye.

Your improv community is never above criticism

I can already tell, I’m going to annoy some people with my opinions on this. But then again, that’s kind of the point.

When you discover a new hobby that you love you get so much more than new skills or ways to relax. A world of like-minded people is suddenly opened up to you, a circle that you know are doomed to be your friend because you all have that ‘thing’ in common. This is now your community. Embrace them, protect them, hold them close.

Improv has, and I say this from a position of absolute bias, the best community that I have ever seen. It’s a nesting-doll of groups and communities, from the local to regional to national level. There’s, of course, a degree of rivalry between regions (because London is a thing, but that’s with all of the arts really) but it’s mostly in jest and when collaborations happen, they’re raucous and lovely.

Looking just the Midlands groups, there’s been an ever growing connection between all the performers. But a few years ago, there wasn’t much chat between the groups outside of national meet-ups. But now, with the growth of jams, guest slots, and reasonable goals (like, not asking teams from across the country visit for a 20 minute slot for little to no pay), groups from Leicester play in Nottingham, Coventry links with Birmingham, and everything from in between. We even reach further out now, with Sheffield joining the fun, and Leeds welcoming us to play too.

People have worked very hard for years to get us to this place – but we can’t pretend that the community we have made is perfect. Happily, due to the nature of the artform, the community is very fluid and welcoming of change, embracing it to continually improve. However, there are still some people who think that their community is perfect, beyond reproach, and when there’s any criticism of them and the communities they’ve placed themselves in the middle of get immediately defensive and don’t acknowledge the problems.

It’s not from a position of malice, at least only rarely, but because the local community is something they have personally worked hard to create. More often that not, each local improv scene was created by one person, who founded the local group, set up regular gigs, created links to other groups, they built it and people came, so of course they will be resistant to change and want to maintain the status quo. You can hardly blame them.

But as with all things, when something is the product of one person there will be issues. As new people join the fold with different perspectives, ideas and backgrounds, there will be clashes. The systems in place to protect people may not be robust enough or they might not be enforced too well. Nothing that’s unsurmountable but it’s a vital step to make your community a better place for everyone.

However, if the people in charge of the community, or if not in charge but hold a position of power, are resistant to those changes or are certain that the way they do things is correct, then your community will never get better. That way lies stagnation and disillusion.

And so we come back to why I like how open and friendly the Midlands’ improv community has become. As we’ve moved around, played and worked with each other, learnt from each other, with tutors coming to teach groups across the country, we’ve been able to get better. Most the community leaders have worked hard to improve how we behave, and those that haven’t? Well, they’ve found life harder and that’s really not something to celebrate. The more toxic elements might be leaving the improv community but it’s sad that they’re not welcoming or empathetic enough to change and adapt their practices. What’s even more sad is that community leaders represent more than themselves, but that whole local improv scene, all the players, the shows, the great creative art they may have made together. It taints all that.

All in all, improv groups in the UK seem to be very welcoming of criticism and the need to change. And many seem to actively seek it out, wanting to be as open as possible for the good of the artform. But if you’re so defensive of your community that you are resistant to criticism, deaf to it even, as understandable as it is, then your community isn’t the happy place you think it is.

I don’t want to make it

I got asked recently (and by recently I mean about 2 years ago but sshhh) if I wanted to ‘make it in improv’. Now I properly sit down and think about it, I’m not even sure what making it in improv looks like. There are so few people in the UK who make their living solely from getting up on stage and making stuff up, and a lot of them that do so are stand-ups, or well established names who came through another field. The name a lot of people bandy about is Paul Merton, who makes a large chunk of his money now through his touring improv shows, but Paul started life as an alternative stand-up, made his name through scripted TV shows, stand-up and radio 4 panel games. It seems there’s a difficulty in making a career as a pure and simple improviser.

But more to the point of the question – if it were possible to make it as an improviser – do I want to make it?

I don’t think I do.

I got back on stage recently, performing in a Same Faces show for the first time in more than 16 months to a paying crowd, in person, with warm-up acts and laughter and dopamine. After our 45 minute set every fibre of my being was exhilarated by what had just made happen. An instant response from an audience that wasn’t our traditional crowd, people who very likely hadn’t really seen much live improv before immediately bought into the tacit silliness of the craft and got involved to the height of their (semi-drunken) funny. It felt brilliant, like stretching after a 3pm nap only to realise that while you were asleep a cat had decided you were a bed and someone had left a cold beer for you. It felt like home.

For me, improvisational comedy is about those genuine connections you make, with your fellow performers on the stage and bond you form with the audience. They’re real, strong, and key to the whole process. It’s mostly the reason why I couldn’t get into performing online (but this doesn’t stop onlineprov from being equally valid, we just don’t get on). Improv holds a special place in my heart because it’s something I enjoy doing with my friends and can create weird and wonderful stories that I’ll share the rest of my life.

However, I’m not good enough.

I’m not fishing for compliments, as lovely as they are, but I’m not. If I wanted, desperately tried to make a career out of improvising and entertaining people there’s a slim chance I could do it. Very slim. But I know I’d be taking the place of someone I knew was better, and better by a magnitude of difference and who truly deserves and wants to be there.

I don’t do improv to expand my career prospects, haven’t spent all the money and time I have on training and gigging around the country to develop a cult following who would support me on a crusade to professionalism. I do it because it’s fun and it’s how I unwind, let of steam and generally regulate my emotions. I’m British, emotions are weird and foreign to me and I need something to do to manage them.

Every spot in a professional improv troupe is like gold dust. When the call is put out for auditions for the handful of teams that do make good money from this ol’ gig they receive dozens and dozens if not hundreds of applications from people who are dedicated and talented enough to make it work, and almost all of them will fail. They’ll be rejected, perhaps lightly let down with a kindly worded email and they start trying again. They keep sending out applications, keep pushing, keep working and from where I’m sat, happily bumbling along with the few groups I play with, organising gigs with my friends and meeting new people, good luck to them. If you’re reading this and are one of those working extremely hard to ‘make improv work’ for you, I sincerely wish you the best of luck.

But I don’t want to join you. I don’t want to make it in improv. I want it to still be fun, to be a laugh, something I do with the people I love, at a pace that I can manage and have some semblance of control over. If I can get some beer money along the way, that’ll be nice too.

Drifting out of lockdown

During my first year of university, in those sweet halcyon days of yore, I was advised that I might benefit from a small course of therapy. Those weren’t the exact words used, mind you, it went more like ‘Lol Adam, you crazy’ but I got the message and was lucky enough to be at an institution that (seemed) to give a damn about mental health.

After being given a lovely form to fill in explaining what I was feeling, a really terrible but efficient way of initial screening, I soon found myself in weekly counselling sessions wherein I would laugh and joke my way through the time, enjoying spurious banter with the counsellor before being told off for my blatant deflection tactic and made to face a home truth or two.

All in all, a positive experience.

As we start to slowly emerge from lockdown (despite all the evidence suggesting it’s a bad idea but hey ho) it’s a perfect time for everyone to quickly pause to think. Evaluate where we are, what we’re doing, and, most importantly, what we want to do. Because after 16 months of sporadic lockdown, illness, incompetence and death, we all need a mental health check. What my friends and I have lovingly dubbed the ‘coronacoaster‘ has taken it’s toll on all of us, whether through the stresses of a new way of living, the reaction to the sadness around us all, or the lack of any control over our worlds.

As normality threatens to return, early it may be, there’s still one question that lots of us need to answer: was normal good enough?

See, I don’t think ‘normal’ was particularly good for our mental health either. We work too much, care too much, get nibbled to death by the dozens of things we have going on like wet bread in a duck pond, and the systems in place aren’t good enough to support our issues.

We have a chance now to stop, if just the briefest of moments, and try to decide what we want. Not just as individuals but as a collective. There’s a crossroads before us, down one fork is a return to the old ways and down the other is something new. Do I know what it is? Nope. Can I guarantee it won’t be hard and shit? Nope. But it’ll be something we made and can improve on. It’ll be ours, not the status quo inherited from the ’90s.

The risk is that if we change nothing, we’ll just continue to drift, mulling along in neutral. I know I feel that I am somewhat. And it’s not because I look around at the scattered remains of the hobbies I picked up and discarded during the last 16 months (we were going through some stuff, allow yourself to have just made it through and be proud of that achievement), but because as we’re beginning to have our freedoms rewarded back to us, I don’t know what to do. I don’t have the drive to get back out, to push myself, to develop, and yet feel that to stay still feels awfully like admitting defeat. It’s practically a step backwards when I know I have this chance to do more.

I think what I’m trying to say is that I want you, me, all of us, to embrace this opportunity to make something better for all of us. Easy words, hard in practice. But it’s a nice thought.

When I finished my round of counselling, the lovely man who had been listening to my rambling (and applying a rather pleasing mix of cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and PDM inspired psychodynamics) told me that it seemed to him that I was very likely a sufferer of manic depression. He couldn’t clinically diagnose me but he strongly recommended that I visit a GP as he very much thought a bipolar diagnosis fit my symptoms. He stressed, again, counsellors are not legally able to diagnose their clients (never patients, because that denotes a medical practice and feels really clinical) but if we had to be pushed he’d say the odds were definitely on that I would benefit from a medical diagnosis and medication.

I never went.

I know why. Despite the knowledge that my life could be made infinitely more stable, I’d be able to do more and perhaps finish a project or two, I was scared that it wouldn’t be a difference I’d like. That having ‘manic depression’ on my medical record would limit my chances, the meds would ‘letterbox’ my moods, just as much robbing me of my glorious highs as much as it blunted the debilitating lows. But most of all, it was the fear of something new that could be better but was an unknown.

I should probably start taking those risks.