Saturday, 28 May 2016

Working and making a living as a model

Photo: PatrickPhotosUK. Model: me

I recently had an opportunity to chat with Lucy Hooker, from BBC News, whose piece "How easy is it to make a living as a model" has just been published. It is a short but to the point article, very enlightening. I have witnessed quite a few changes in the industry since I became involved with it and it's time to talk about the unpleasant side of modelling, always depicted as glamorous, but in reality a difficult job that is not at all valued.
The piece by Lucy Hooker is focused on younger models, who are often the casualty of the industry. When I spoke with Lucy I made it clear that older models are in a relatively new and special category and they are rarely subjected to the same harassment that for example "Lauren" talks about - that constant pressure to lose weight or change look which many girls have to put up with.
However, come to think of it, way back a booker from an agency I am no longer with, insisted on me cutting my hair in an 'Anna Wintour' style bob or, she maintained, I would never get booked for commercial work. That was in 2008, my hair was to my mid back  and I had very little experience of the industry, being a newbie. I wanted to please and thus I complied.

With long hair in 2008, prior to the haircut. Photo: David Nuttall

That was the last time I cut my hair in any serious way. I realised that I had made a mistake soon after cutting it and  I actually lost, rather than gained, work, because with a bob I looked just like any other mature model, also sporting a bob.
These days I would not  have a haircut because someone is asking me to, though I know that many clients do think my hair is way too long and at some castings I have been asked pointblank 'how much hair can we trim?'
I am saying this because "Lauren" talks about being pressurised to change her looks and yes, even older models can, on occasion, be put under a similar pressure, though they can be more assertive than younger women and thus can refuse.

Soon after my haircut in 2008. Photo by Neil Huxtable

It is a very competitive job and the mature model sector is doubly competitive because there are fewer jobs and too many models, all invested with the task of representing "the glamorous, mature woman" (and what this glamorous, aspirational look should be is subject to interpretation). You may be very lucky to have a supportive agency and  bookers that really understand your potential and your capabilities and put you forward for interesting jobs - as indeed I am fortunate to have now - but at the end of the day agencies are businesses and if you do not make them enough money, bookers will push whoever is likely to bring them a profit.
You go to a casting and you spot someone similar to you in look  - it happens, even though at castings people are given a time slot, precisely to avoid awkward meetings with other models, often from your  same agency - and you know it is an either/or situation, it's either you or the other model. There are not that many jobs really, and yes you do end up being pitched against each other, it's the way it works.  Eighty seven year old model Daphne Selfe  (who started when there were hardly any mature models) says that when this occurs you just feel happy for your friends who get the job rather than you and must never fear, for something else will definitely turn up. It's a very Zen attitude. Not everyone is able to take it in their stride.
The issues concerning money are also applicable to the mature model sector. It is absolutely true that a lot of the work is unpaid and some people are even surprised you should be asking for money, apparently you should count yourself lucky if you have been picked for a prestigious job, you are asking to be what? Paid?
At a recent  shoot  the artistic director told me that they had spent most of the budget on props so the models would have to be working for nothing. And there are people who  ask you to 'test' when in fact they need images for their business!

A recent shoot for Florencia Martinez, photographer: Alexis Negrin
It is also very true that invoices are often settled very late and sometimes you have to keep on asking for your money, emailing account departments and that can feel utterly humiliating.
Not too long ago I had  a problem with a major  brand who for some reason forgot to include me in the batch of payments that went out a few months after the filming. To cut a long story short - and it was a long story, as this matter dragged on for months - I ended up contacting myself the production company,  in a most polite and conciliatory tone, and after several emails that went back and forth, and almost a year later,  they "reissued" the payment (but in fact the payment had not been made at all before then) to the agency who then issued it to me minus the usual commission.
Everyone can set themselves up as a model these days, with Instagram and Facebook pages. The social media thing is changing the industry, brands increasingly want  models with a following.  More followers= more customers. And modelling  agencies often undercut each other.
The news that FM London has been put into receivership is quite worrying as it means that many models will not see their money at all. It has happened before, with another agency that worked in the mature sector but was not as well known as FM. Its models 'migrated'  to other agencies and some of these models will tell you stories of payments that were never made and the sense of sheer frustration it generated, not to mention their considerable financial losses.
However, there is something models of all ages can do. There is Equity. Joining the  union can definitely help. Actors worked this out for themselves a long time ago, models seem to be very reluctant to join a union.
You can get more information here. There is also a Facebook page here.
Models have rights and should be able to discuss their problems freely. The union can help with a great many issues and in confidence if so required. It is not expensive to join and it is definitely money well spent.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Brides over fifty: the wedding gown issue

Photo by David J. Green. Dress by Tammam Model: me

The news that grey haired model Cindy Joseph got married at the age of sixty-two is a reminder not only that people do get married at any age but that a lot people tend to  marry  their long term partner well into their fifties and later -  a (male) friend of mine is just doing so next week and neither he nor his wife-to-be are spring chickens nor are they  new to each other, after twenty years together.
As you get older, marriage is rarely the outcome of a whirlwind romance - even Joseph and her partner waited for a good seven years before tying the knot. Sure, we have had the example of Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch, she pushing sixty, he well over eighty. They did not waste time after meeting and immediately decided to wed. It is rumoured that alongside their mutual attraction, financial considerations had come into play. No matter. She looked radiant on her wedding day.
What I am trying to say is that marriage after a certain age is a decision not taken lightly, weighing all the pros and cons. But even though it is a well thought out decision, there is absolutely no reason why the wedding day should be dull and no reason whatsoever not to wear bridal finery, if one is so inclined. It is after all a very special day.
Photo by Alexis Negrin, Styling by Florencia Martinez, model: me (not a bridal outfit)

The problem is that often women, maybe because it may be the second time round, will settle for something very low key, just an elegant dress that could double up as a cocktail dress. If I were to get married tomorrow, I would not want to look like Cinderella at the ball, that would not be to my taste. What is the alternative?Nothing suitable seems to be available and if it is,  the way it is put across is problematic, as I will explain.
I think this should be a wake up call for designers of bridal wear. My message to the designers is this: your best clients are actually going to be older women  and you should have a whole range of beautiful wedding gowns that can be worn by clients of all ages and show them on models of all ages.
Who says that white is inappropriate ? Joseph wore a lovely, simple, white gown and looked fabulous.
I have a modelled a couple of times some bridal wear, most notably for Tamman. But have found that I am more likely to be asked to model 'mother of the bride' ensembles than actual bridal wear. Somehow we still have this fiction of a virginal young bride  perpetuated within the entirety of the 'wedding industry'  - a subset of the fashion industry.

"Sincerity" dress for older brides. Google images
Even when the dress is targeted at older brides, it is actually modelled by a woman who might be in her early thirties at the most, as in the instance of the dress above or in that of another  gorgeous white dress to be found at Debenhams, also targetted at older brides. Why?
We have had older women modelling high fashion, even bikinis and looking very glam.
I would love to see  older models, well over forty, modelling bridal wear, rather than (sometimes) ghastly 'mother of the bride' or 'mother of the groom' dresses.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Women who do not diet?

Daily Mail feature
I was involved in the photoshoot and in the interview for the piece  'Secrets of the skinny women who NEVER diet' which appeared in the Daily Mail on Monday 16th May.  I would like to give an insight into the 'behind the scenes', as I do find the press and its workings most fascinating.
I am very grateful to Grey Model Agency for giving me the opportunity to be involved and of course to the lovely Kerry Potter, a most experienced professional, for the interview, and to Joanna Bridger, the editor,  as well as the whole team of photographer, MUA, stylist etc. I also would like to say I really enjoyed the lunch at the Daily Mail on the day of the shoot, the salad  was absolutely delicious!
To begin with you may have noticed that the Mail said upfront I was a model and mentioned the agency. This is quite unusual, as the Mail always prefers to give readers the impression they are using 'real women' for all such features even though several of them are actually models, often  to be found in the Lifestyle or Real People section of some model agency. Thus, for example Sanna, who appeared in another issue of the Mail also recently, in a piece about the ideal waist size, is a model who happens to have had a career as a professional dancer, so she was described as a dance teacher, leaving out the modelling bit.
The Mail likes lining up the women that appear in such features  though they are always photographed individually, gathering them in the line up in postproduction, which of course means using Photoshop. This is occasionally not very successful.
I was photographed wearing three different outfits, standing and sitting and finally the photo that was chosen was, I guess, the one that allowed the line up to be as realistic as possible. The colouring is also quite strong, but that depends on whether the photo is seen in the print version or the online one (I got the print as well, as a tear sheet).

Photographer: David PD Hyde, 2016
The interview was over the phone. Once the piece is submitted and approved and prior to going to press the Mail always tries to read back the piece to the interviewee to correct some details. There were a couple of things that had been misinterpreted and I asked for them to be altered. In hindsight I should have said more clearly that to be anorexic thin is bad rather than condemning extreme thinness altogether.  Being very thin is very natural for some women and they are not necessarily unhealthy because of their small size.
I would not call myself skinny at all, just slim, but was lumped with 'skinny' women. In fact as one reader rightly comments all the women in the article are normal size, none of the women portrayed in the piece is skinny.  I have a muscular body because I work out regularly and have done so for years. Now this is the thing that was omitted and I wish it had not. You cannot be in good shape without working out and I exercise (not just move, as some people would say).  I do  targeted exercises following a programme and I often put in one and a half hour of exercise everyday. When I have no time,  I only do thirty minutes. I rest on Sundays. Then I begin again. Missing my daily exercise is a big deal for me.
Even though I talked about this with the interviewer and mentioned the wonderful trainers I work with, the ladies at Sleek ,whom the interviewer knew, somehow this was not included. Also the thing about eating cake. I do not have a sweet tooth at all and rarely eat cake, only if I have to, and also only very occasionally I may have an ice cream, in summer for example or when I was in Florence last year, as the ice cream there is really nice.

Photographer: Adam Robertson Lingerie designs by Lux Tenebrae, 2014
It is interesting to think about the overall tone of the article and the video chosen to illustrate it (and once again there was some Gwyneth Paltrow bashing, but not in my interview). The video shows a young girl who indulges in overeating, taking part in one of those horrendous competitions where you have to stuff yourself.  She is naturally skinny and petite.
What's the message underpinning all this? That it would be amazing to be able to stuff oneself and never put on weight.  This is presented as an ideal, an aspiration which unfortunately is not within everyone's reach. Well, no.
That level of eating to me  is just gross, even unethical.
One could argue that actually we all follow a diet in the sense that we eat certain foods that we favour  over others. We do not all restrict our food intake drastically, but some of us do it naturally, just by watching portions, and making sure the quality of food we eat is high. It is no big deal, it is not a secret. If you are given three potatoes, eat only one!
I make my own bread - easy to do, with a bread maker. I sometimes use flour that is not high in its gluten content and I only ever use organic flour. Another thing I do is to leave a good 12 hours interval between my last and first meal, which means my breakfast is always very late, even though I may have tea or coffee in the morning.
Most of all I exercise REGULARLY. To me that is essential, just like showering or brushing one's teeth. It is not enough to walk and maybe dance to music around the house, though they may be very enjoyable activities I sometimes indulge in. You need to work those abs and gluts with targeted exercises. You need to keep the spine really flexible and so on and so forth. Sugar ruins your teeth, there is no need to have it.
It is impossible to keep in good shape, especially as an older , post-menopausal woman, without cutting down on sugar, soda and fast food and alcohol intake and without exercising. I used to be size 6 in my twenties, weighing about 52 kilos. I put on four kilos since then and went up a size but this change is normal and am not trying to be the same size  I was then. But I will not compromise on keeping fit and toned.
I certainly do not want to be skinny and eat all the available big Macs I can find,  I never did.  That video to me defeats the purpose of trying to show that moderation in food intake, something that all the women interviewed practise, is the key to good health and good shape.
I want a toned and healthy body for as long as I can and will invest time and effort to achieve it.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Goop and the Sex Pod

Photographer: Doh Lee. Model : me 

My blog post today is  all about sex!
The other day I read an article in The Guardian in which Gwyneth Paltrow was again given a good bashing. Ok, I have to confess here that I do not care much for Ms Paltrow and yes, I do find Goop products a little too expensive for my purse but come on, to label Goop  as 'joyless', and preaching about 'joyless' sex is a bit much. Goop is not meant to be a substitute for the Kama Sutra!
I don't think it is at all wrong to worry about the toxins that can invade your vagina - wanting a paraben free, water based lube is not an indication of wanting to kill pleasure, on the contrary. I personally do worry about the health of my body, vagina included,  and I do not think I am so unusual in wanting to keep things in check.
I do scrutinise beauty products for my face , so it goes without saying I want to be more in control of  products that target my vagina. Why would there be a hierarchy between face and vagina?
Goop has essays and articles which tell you a bit more about sex health, which otherwise you would not really pay much attention to. Sex is often talked about the wrong way and it's good that Goop can advise on sexual health issues.
Take the pill for example. I took it for a very short time in my twenties and then absolutely refused to go on taking it - I no longer need contraceptives now, but I did when I was younger.  I did not like what it did to my body.  After stopping it I did not end up having ten children, I only had one and he was very much wanted. But to keep myself in a state of continuous early pregnancy , which is what the pill basically does to your body, simply was not on.

Model: me Stylist: Alisa Ernst

So I really do not get all this Goop aka Gwyneth Paltrow bashing. Remember the dictum , if you can't say something  nice "don't say nothing at all".
As for the Sex Pod on 5Star,  I learnt about it from the Daily Mail of which I am not a loyal  reader, presented as a "shocking" programme. I  was intrigued because one of my favourite people, the very elegant and stylish, passion coach  Dr Vena Ramphal was involved.   She is also very, very smart and witty.
So I had a look at episode 1 and was very pleasantly surprised. It's a programme worth watching, funny, down to earth and very informative.
I suggest The Guardian should worry less about Goop and more about the realities of sex, as presented by The Sex Pod.  But wait. Perhaps it is not sufficiently middle class to do so.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Posing the body

Adland I
Photographer: David Stewart. Models: me and others, including Nicola Griffin, also from Grey 

I have been quite busy recently, travelling back and forth to Italy  but the 'Posing the body: Stillness, Movement and Representation' symposium was, for me, the highlight of last week.
I came across the event quite by chance and was immediately intrigued by its rationale,  an exploration of the art of posing, something that no one seems to be paying  much attention to, as the organisers Rebecca Arnold, Katherine Faulkner and Katerina Pantelides, Courtauld Institute, and Eugénie Shinkle, University of Westminster, claim.
Yet, as they also rightly claim, "posing has been central to art, dance and sculpture for thousands of years". The current interest in fashion modelling has also brought posing to the fore, so there is a need to discuss it.
I have been involved with posing not only as a model (or even as a dancer of sort).  The study of posing and movement was an important part of my doctoral work, as I studied the representation of dance poses and dance movements in the iconography of Javanese temples of the classical period, with cross-reference to India. I focused precisely on issues of modes and also technologies of representation and their relationship with bodies and subjects, symbolic meaning and embodied action, as indeed this symposium aimed to discuss through a range of multi-disciplinary papers.
A session I very much looked forward to was the panel discussion with fashion model Jan de Villeneuve, acclaimed photographer Julian Marshall and Caroline Hamilton, dance and costume historian.

From one of the presentations at Posing the Body

The papers were indeed most interesting with sessions on posing, directing and moving; art, fashion and sculpture; movement and dance; bodies, gender and politics.
I learnt a lot, definitely, even though I had to miss a session as I had a previous commitment that I could not postpone, so I left at some point to return for the final session and the panel discussion. I enjoyed tremendously the paper by Felice McDowell, associate lecturer at London College of Fashion, who talked about posing from the point of view of the fashion models of the 1960s, whose autobiographical writings she has been  examining. I also enjoyed the paper presented by Peter K. Andersson from Lund University who discussed posing and  street photography in the 19th century. I loved the examples he showed, I felt a little uncomfortable though at the emphasis on spontaneity for indeed the technology of the time allowed very little spontaneity and the photographer would certainly be staging most shots. But I may be wrong, here, my involvement in photography is amateurial, though I use medium format analogue cameras, heavy to carry and set up. Imagine how cumbersome the old ones were!
That the photographer is still in charge is also a truth today , in fashion and commercial shoots. I know that because I live it. Actually I would say that today, it is increasingly the client that has the final say on what is going to be used, and this does have an impact on  both model and photographer as embodied subjects.  But the inclusion of practitioners such as Jan de Villeneuve and Julian Marshall was important in that it gave an opportunity to marry the critical enquiry to the realities of practice.
Adland II by David Stewart

Also fascinating were Caroline Hamilton's remarks on the fact that dance costumes have to be seen on the bodies of the performers, which may present problems in the context of a curatorial display. I guess this can be counterbalanced by having films and photographs accompanying the display. Indeed I find that all clothes, not just costumes, need to be seen on a body, hence the need for models at a fashion show.
Indonesian models before a show for brand Sejauh Mata Memandang 

I was a little saddened by the fact that the symposium had a strong Eurocentric thrust, in that it omitted other experiences of posing. It came up in one of the questions from the attendees, when someone questioned the photographic representation of  black moving bodies, but it was not elaborated upon. I would have also expected some historical grounding. The understanding and knowledge of poses has been part and parcel of the art historian's toolbox, through a study of iconography - indeed it was my interest in Panofskyan iconography and iconology that led me to further studies in the field. So the study of posing is not so new, perhaps, but what is definitely new is this growing interest in the cultural significance of posing. Indeed the advent of social media has turned everyone into an expert poser, as can be seen from the proliferation of  instagram accounts worldwide - when I was in Indonesia doing my research on fashion and women, last winter, I realised that almost everyone I met had an instagram account!
So I definitely welcome events such as this symposium and hope that these discussions will be taken further and be perhaps more inclusive.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Culture and conquest: selective memory of the past

me at the British Museum on a sunny Sunday afternoon

I really wanted to see the new exhibition at the British Museum on Sicily, having just returned from Palermo and having not had the chance to visit the Museo Archeologico Regionale while I was there. I went to the British Museum on a Sunday which is a big mistake as it was absolutely packed, so I returned yesterday afternoon. I am a member of the British Museum (until next Saturday and I will not be renewing the membership, it is too pricey) so I can go whenever I wish without booking or paying extra. It was a lot less crowded on a Monday  though the exhibition was very well attended, this is indeed an exhibition that has a certain appeal.
 On my second visit I was on my own - I find that if I go to exhibitions with others, no matter how well informed they are, I tend to concentrate on socialising and I do not notice things as much as I do when I am alone.
 The exhibition, which focuses almost exclusively on two periods of Sicilian history, the Greek period and the Norman conquest, is one of the last overseen by Neil MacGregor prior to his move to Berlin. It is very interesting in terms of its political significance - a glorification of multiculturalism,  MacGregor's  hobbyhorse, as this TED talk reveals -  but it remains a  little disappointing, at least  in terms of its size and also, as will be clear from this post, in terms of the narrative it weaves around the Norman conquest. Some of the objects on display, borrowed from Sicilian museums and sites, are quite outstanding, though, and worth paying the £10 required to see them.

The exhibition also comprised  objects from the permanent display in Room 73 (Greeks in Italy), which I checked out separately to see how many artefacts  had been moved from there. As you know, entry to the Museum is free, but exhibitions have to be  paid for.  One would feel a little shortchanged if a ticketed exhibition only contained objects moved from a permanent display to the exhibition area - which was pretty much the case with the one about the Greeks, last year, also sponsored by Julius Bär. Incidentally on the way to room 73 one has to pass through a display sponsored by CitiBank, about money in the ancient world. Mercifully, that small exhibition is free...
The Sicily exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs, a volume with essays and photographs of the objects, providing information that is missing from the exhibition itself eg  the great Archimedes of Syracuse is only mentioned in passing, the catalogue has however a write up about him and his famous Eureka moment. If you had no catalogue you would learn nothing about Archimedes - here I am thinking of the many children who visit and who are being catered for by special labels which ask very basic questions, some even mention selfies  (I assume they are aimed at children). Also without catalogue and background essays you would come out of the exhibition with a rather lopsided view of Sicily. The exhibition is  big on photographs, I would say, but a bit lacking in content and some of the statements made are rather contentious. The catalogue too is not immune to partial views (and some mispellings too eg 'meanad' for 'maenad') but it does the job of providing more detailed historical information and it does describe the objects.

Palermo's Cathedral
 The exhibition's rationale was immediately evident. An anonymous reviewer for The Economist writes "As the Mediterranean struggles to decide how to share its future, understanding its shared history is more important than ever". Nothing wrong with that.
My problem is the fact that Norman presence in Sicily is so overpraised to the point of stating that Sicily began its decline soon after Norman rule collapsed. Well, surely that is a tad one sided? Ending the exhibition by saying that after the Normans Sicily just became a province of mainland Italy and everything artistic thereby produced was derivative is pretty disturbing - I am speaking here as a southern Italian of distant Spanish and French descent thrown into the mix. Moreover, I was in Sicily less than a fortnight ago, as a visitor. What about Palermo's beautiful post-Norman churches and that amazing Cathedral that blends Norman period architecture with later one, with grand baroque additions and which is so breathtaking that one is genuinely moved by its awesomeness?  The view that the French Anjous, and later the Spaniards, were evil, and brought in destruction, is a bit overrated,  as the edited volume The Spanish presence in 16th century Italy (2015) clarifies.
Labels in the exhibition seem to have been written rather hurriedly. Thus it is stated that the wife of Roger, the first Norman ruler, the noblewoman Adelasia, a fifteen year old from Liguria when Roger married her (he was about sixty), later in charge as regent when he died (love her name, would gladly change mine for it) wrote a famous bilingual decree, one of the very first issued on paper in the whole of Europe. With due respect, she did not write anything at all, she probably could not write, more likely she was advised to issue the order that the message of the decree should be written in Greek and Arabic, which she would not have spoken, so that all the people on the island would  understand.

Palermo. San Cataldo. 
Then there is the label that says (I am quoting more or less verbatim) "a large number of English scholars and clerics made the trip South to Italy to be at the Norman court, resulting in the exchange of artistic and political ideas. William II married Joan Plantagenet, Frederick II married Isabella, daughter of John. The weddings made the bonds between the two islands even stronger".
Norman England and Norman Sicily, together they stood. When the Normans had to give way to the Anjous (those upstarts!) it spelled the end of Sicily.
I am not persuaded by this 'Rule Britannia' rhetoric that underpins it all. MacGregor has stated in an interview that the Germans confront their past, the English are selective in the way they remember it. In this rather potted history of Sicily,  the Greeks are held in the highest esteem, the Romans are more or less vilified, presented as plunderers, the Byzantines hurriedly mentioned almost in one breath with the Arabs, the conquering Normans (still arriving uninvited, being conquerors) depicted as harbinger of a splendid  multicultural civilization (seriously, multiculturalism? a modern, liberal concept now used with reference to the 11th-12th century, when society was quintessentially feudal, yes, even under the Normans!) and in close dialogue with Norman England, please note this fact.  Whatever happened after Norman demise is depicted as just a sorry tale of woe. This is very selective memory indeed.  Enough to make Etna grumble rather loudly.
History, one would say, is definitely a matter of opinion. Especially when recounted through blockbuster exhibitions sponsored by Julius Bär.

Mount Etna grumbling. Photo by anonymous

(in an earlier version of this post there was a factual error re the decree of Adelasia, which I have now amended)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Sister bonding

With my sister at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo
Sisters. Not all of us have one and those of us who do often think, while growing up, that our sisters are a real nuisance. I certainly did. You know what I mean. Parents go on about 'having to share' and such like. God,  there were times I could have killed her! but I also saved her from drowning, when she was a little girl...Luisa Dillner wrote a few years ago  The Complete Book of Sisters, which is a most entertaining read, sisters on sisters.  I highly recommend it.
I have lots of sisters but the one I grew up with is my little sister - not so little now, but I am older by more or less three years, so she still is my little sister to me. We live in different countries and do not see each other very often. We used to fight like crazy (and still do) but when we are together we also find that we laugh at the same things and can communicate most easily without even speaking.
Anyway, we had to go for a family matter to meet up with my older brother. My little sister and I decided to spend a few days together, just us two,  prior to meeting him, so we flew to Palermo, which we had never been to and then slowly made our way by bus and train to where my brother lives, in Calabria.

We loved Palermo and spent the whole of last Sunday exploring it on foot. She was worried because her luggage had not come with her, the usual airline mishap - she was most anxious, in fact. But still, between one call to the airport and the other, we found time to be wowed by the beauty of our surroundings.
Sicily is splendid and Palermo is amazing. We walked everywhere, explored every corner of the 'Centro Storico', and throughout, from a stilted, somewhat formal beginning, we reverted back to being the silly girls that we used to be, laughing at things no one else would understand, saying the same thing at exactly the same time, gently poking fun at each other.
There were great moments, such as when a local approached us thinking that as tourists we might want to avail of his services as guide, only to be stunned by me saying curtly  'Oh do shut up,  I am busy taking pictures of my sister'. She began to laugh so much, she almost choked. The poor guy left us at once. He was only trying to make a living, she said. He was being a nuisance, I replied. It was so hot, we went to get a gelato.

The weather was fantastic throughout the visit and we even managed to go to the beach and swim - the water was icy, I must admit, but it was wonderful and we felt so good.
She and I look very much like each other, more or less the same height, and the same features. We look more and more like each other as we grow older - we were quite different in appearance when we were younger.  She is only a bit curvier and has brown hair - she would not embrace her grey. Fair enough, it is a choice.
But we were not just 'doing the sights'. We also spent quite some time window shopping and deliberating on wearing heels and wondered which colour would suit us best while admiring the latest fashion on display. Like we used to do as girls.

We even went to a music concert on the spur of the moment and it was a lovely experience.
The bottom line is: visit Sicily if you can, and spend some quality time with your sister, if you have one. You will be pleasantly surprised on both counts. And if you go to Sicily, be prepared to put on a little weight: the food is simply delicious.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

More on weight loss, weight gain

I posted on this topic earlier and got some very interesting responses. I am writing again about it because of a post by Katy, another blogger, where comparisons were drawn between Linda Evangelista and Victoria Beckham, more precisely about Evangelista's weight gain and Beckham's alleged eating disorder.
The gist of the post is that basically everyone should be free to put on weight if they so choose which is apparently what Evangelista has done -  perhaps temporarily? I could not agree more!
However, my point is that everyone should be also free to lose weight if they so choose, without any comments. Yes, I know, we are constantly bombarded by images of slim women and the idea that slim is beautiful is inculcated in us at a very young age and that may have negative consequences.
But we are also bombarded with lots of other messages whose impact is equally negative - smoking for a long time was depicted as glamorous, for example,  and drinking continues to be glorified. Here I would simply say that what we need to do is learn from a very young age to recognise that ads are manipulative. Once we realise that, we can be in control, we need to listen to our body and make our own choices in relation to what makes us feel happy. We need visual literacy and we need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. As Linda Evangelista said herself "It’s nonsense to say that perfect images of models in magazines are bad for women, because we know they’re not real – we look at them because we love to dream".

As for the statements made by Kate, whose posts I otherwise always enjoy reading, ie that to keep yourself in good shape you need a lot of money or the will of a gladiator, I would say you need neither. Some people like stuffing their faces with cakes, I for example dislike sugary things and you will not catch me eating candies. I exercise daily because I like the feel good factor, the buzz it gives me and I do not fill my stomach to bursting because I like being able to experience a tiny bit of hunger, it makes me clear headed and  makes my next meal much more satisfying.
I am not a super fan of Victoria Beckham but as she has been very slim for most of her adult life perhaps it is unfair to keep on comparing photos of her with those taken  when she was much younger and she was carrying puppy fat. She is quite petite (she used to wear only heels to make herself taller) so extra weight would show quite quickly on her frame and would make her look shorter than she is, whereas Linda Evangelista is 5'9 with very long legs, so she can carry any extra weight much more easily.
Why can we not accept that Victoria Beckham feels more comfortable with herself as a very slim woman? She may be following a diet but obviously it's not so  damaging or she would have died by now. I believe she also exercises regularly - she has had four children and her abs are toned! How can one say that the quality of her life must be pretty low because she does not eat cream cakes? I doubt it she is unhappy on account of not eating sugar.

It's ironic to contrast Victoria Beckham with Linda Evangelista. In an interview given some years ago  when she finally graced Vogue cover Victoria Beckham said she would have loved to look like Linda but no matter what, she couldn't, because you cannot lengthen your legs or add height  so she accepted herself as she was and decided to work on herself to feel comfortable with her own shape. She also claimed to have been blessed with good genes and that keeping slim was not an effort.
Damn, your shape is, when all is said and done, a lot to do with choice and also  accepting what your genes have handed you.  I  respect  personal choices concerning appearance, just as I respect the choice of someone deciding to go vegan - I am not,  but it does not mean I criticise vegans.
We are all different and we all like different things. We should be allowed to put on or lose weight without this becoming an issue. It is just a personal choice.

(All photos from a recent shoot for Karina Martemyanova and for Florentia Martines Cruces)

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Stonehenge and women

Last night, God knows why,  I felt the urge to go and see  Stonehenge after years and years - the first time I went it was still possible to  climb up the stones! (Can't hide my age here! It was Mrs T. who decided the Henge would be out of  bounds because of the 'excesses' of the visitors. There was the danger of people inscribing hearts into the stones, but would they really do so?).
I would have loved to go with a friend but let's face it, even my wonderful friends would be most likely to say no. Imagine calling up and saying 'Let's go to Stonehenge tomorrow morning'. Hmm. It's a weekday and we all lead very busy lives. Not to worry , when I get these urges I just go on my own, I know better (and I know I just cannot plan and postpone, it's  not the same). I booked a tour, a last minute booking - how I relished doing that. It is complicated to go to Stonehenge these days because tickets to visit the site have to be booked from English Heritage 24 hours earlier and then you are given a slot. From London you have to make your way to Salisbury and then to Stonehenge. I reckoned the quickest way was to book a tour, as tour operators have priority and can be given tickets on the day.
I woke up at 6 am as the coach was leaving from Victoria at 8 am. Got ready, got my camera and off I went.

My travel companions, mostly American and German tourists, were very nice. It was raining, no sign of the sun. And it was cold. On the way to Salisbury we were entertained by a DVD called The Mystery of Stonehenge. I enjoyed it , it was well made and very informative. Then we arrived and it was windy and wet. We had two hours to walk around the Henge, visit the exhibition, go to the cafeteria (optional but in that weather a hot drink was very welcome,) go to the souvenir shop (also optional but then...), then back to London. I had not brought protection for my camera but had an umbrella. I had to negotiate my way around the prescribed route - we were given audioguides, which I positively hate - in order to get a good view of the stones. But alas, it was not possible to go near them.
At some point I stepped back and sat on a bench - there's a few provided for the comfort of the visitors. And I began to reflect, randomly. Last year at about this time I was in Malta, visiting the Goddess' shrines. They began earlier than Stonehenge but at some point, time wise, they overlap.
How come that when we hear about Stonehenge women are hardly mentioned? Meanwhile in Malta...

Malta. Goddess temple
I visited the exhibition. A Stonehenge man had been digitally reconstructed, out of one of the skeletons that had been found. He was 172  cm tall (a bit short, really, but in those days they were on the short side). The reconstructed face was weird, too modern, I thought. He could have been just any fair skinned, twenty something from Salisbury! Maybe that was the point. I looked around for women. None. no girlfriends, no mothers, none whatsoever.
Why are women so conspicuously absent at Stonehenge? You have to go to Malta to see them in their  neolithic glory.
Yet a recent article by Jennifer Viegas claims that powerful women had been found buried at Stonehenge. How do we know they were powerful? Well, anyone buried at Stonehenge had to be a leader, so any woman found there, buried in pomp, would have been one.
It's time to change this construct we have of Stonehenge as being all male. It obviously was not.
It troubles me, this tendency to write women off history (or prehistory). Has there not been something called feminism? Where has it got to? Do we need to reinvent the female wheel every time?

(All photos in this post are my own)

Monday, 4 April 2016

Taking control of your body: weight loss and weight gain

Photographer: Lucy Feng. Model: me
This is  another post about dieting and changing body shape. I find it fascinating, as a topic. I love it when women decide that they should take control of their bodies. It's not the mindless dieting one is indoctrinated to do, because 'you should'. It is the dieting that accompanies life changes and signals to the dieter that the body, and  therefore one's life, can be controlled and steered in the right direction, whatever that may be.
I recently went for yet another hammam experience. I am definitely sold on the thing, I need it and crave it and am looking for the perfect hammam outside Morocco. As I was relaxing in the very hot steam, mud all over my body, another woman walked in and began comparing herself to me.  I never like such comparisons, they are meaningless. She concluded she needed  to lose at least five to six kilos. Fair enough, it was her decision, I was not there to judge anyone. She also said she needed to exercise more and asked which gym I went to. 'I don't go to a gym anymore' I told her, I exercise at home, doing the barre. She complained about this, about that, I lost interest and just lay very still, enjoying the heat.  She sounded like someone that was afraid to take a decision and stick to it and desperately wanted me to tell her what she should do. I cannot decide for others!

Casa Spa, Arabian Hammam
Whether you want to lose weight or put it on, it   is entirely your decision. Some people really make an effort, others do not, they believe it just happens.
Two friends of mine recently decided to lose a lot of weight. I asked them to tell me why and what their experience was like. Did they do it because they were trying to conform? No, both of them said they did it for themselves, and one of them especially relished exercising control over her body.
This is S. 's testimonial:
"My recent weight loss is a bit of an oddity to me. Having steadily gained a lot of weight over the past 13 years something shifted for me last summer. I began to look at my life and stopped doing the things that were shrivelling my soul; I stopped spending my evenings on the sofa watching awful television while stuffing my face with endless food and started to play music and dance in my house instead. This coincided with stopping the antidepressants that I'd been taking for decades and with the end of a long relationship that was not making me happy. I took a look at my body and realised how much weight I had gained and how I had drifted into an unhappy middle age where comfort eating had been my only real friend. It was my change in attitude that really altered. I have not been on a diet nor consciously tried to lose weight but back in September I wrote in my journal that I thanked my body for the weight gain and the protection I felt it gave me at the time but that I no longer needed it, it was time to let it go and live again. Since then I have lost over 50 pounds with none of the usual calorie counting or restrictions I used to employ to try to slim. I just found that as I moved and danced instead of vegetating in front of the television my appetites shifted hugely. From continually eating junk food I swapped to healthy meals without effort and stopped feeling the desire to fill my body to bursting with junk food. I eat much less than I used to, but I don't even think about food much now, I eat whatever I want to eat whenever I want to. It turns out that I'm in effect doing intermittent fasting, though it was not by design. I go for long periods when I have no desire to eat, then when I feel hunger I eat I feel at home in my body again after many years when it felt like the enemy".
Photographer: Lucy Feng
Thanks S. you have articulated it so well. Moving away from food as comfort is a big decision. Far too often we are caught  into  this 'eat to feel better' trap. I have done it too, I occasionally still do it but I monitor myself and when I hit a certain weight I know it's time to do something.
C. on the other hand emailed me the following comments and I really find them food for thought:
"Dieting is an intervention on the body. It can stem from a positive attitude and a balanced idea of 'getting rid of fat and toxins' and 'letting in only good nutrients' or it can feel like pushing the body and the self to behave differently than before, to break habits and patterns.  In this case a level of self criticism is required. If emotionally balanced that criticism is accompanied by self empowerment. But at times of emotional strain my attitude is to push myself to look and feel stronger/leaner/ better/younger. More more more. A race. 
I usually stop eating for two days. I only take water and nuts or one banana for the third day and thus close up my stomach and start appreciating flavours that come from non fatty foods. I usually do that for a month or 40 days and can lose up to 5-7 kilos. I am quite disciplined once I really decide to diet and I only do it for aesthetic purposes, fit into tight dresses and not to feel sluggish. People always comment on my slim figure and I find this quite motivational. I feel more assertive, in control and powerful, when I am slim. I like my body fuller but I feel that I need to work harder in choosing flattering tailored clothes. When slim I can wear inexpensive clothes and look younger. 
I don't like it when I succumb to stereotypes of female slimness imposed by the media. I try to focus on my own image of what a healthy toned body is and  I'm in control of what my figure and  myself could look like rather than compare myself to  models. But these images are everywhere and are hard to ignore. I have internalised a look of an elegant white dancer type like Audrey Hepburn that I try to achieve. As an almost 40 year old mother of two this image becomes trickier to achieve and I don't want to push myself in a punishing way . 
The quality of my skin has changed and I found that when I lose weight rapidly the skin gets shaggy which is an added concern. I tend to have to  add an exercise regime for my abs and buy creams to improve elasticity or collagen tablets to help my skin cope. 

Photographer: Lucy Feng
At the moment I feel good doing this. I feel I am active in coping with me turning 40 rather than let the "mother " lifestyle take the best of me. Slimness is associated with youth and this is a visual culture of slim idols so the real effort for me is to balance my psychology, accept my age and the demands of being a parent of young kids and my desire to look my best. Of course my "best" is an illusion created by culture and photoshopped images. So I guess I diet and try to detox of self hate and sexist anti feminist discourse at the same time. It is a balancing act on a tightrope. Most women dance it. Some fall and there is no safety net. Some choose not to climb the rope. Damned if you diet and damned if you don't. Even those who are naturally given a slim physique have to make some diet changes as they get older and the metabolism changes. We now know more scientific truths about weight loss but our psychology can still be fragile and the culture market around us as forceful as ever. Slimness is a cultural capital.  And this is capitalism at the end of the day. Beautiful me can be a rounder me and the moon is equally beautiful when slim as when full. Mental diet from junk inflexible notions of beauty is part of a healthy regime but I don't always achieve that".
Thanks C. for saying  it so eloquently. We all know what you mean.