Top mental health tips for World Mental Health Day

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In honour of World Mental Health Day 2014, organised by the Mental Health Foundation, I have compiled a list of my top tips for mental health for anyone who’s interested.

It’s a lot easier to maintain mental health than it is to recover it. The body and mind cannot be pushed to it’s limits without compensation coming from somewhere, but the the perfectionists among us may take a lifetime to learn this. Unfortunately, most people only become aware of their mental health once it has been lost. I have assimilated a layman’s body of knowledge about mental health over the last few years, and I thought it was time to distil it into a set of ‘top tips’ – a short handbook for maintaining mental health. I have written it to coincide with World Mental Health day.

There are a lot of internet writers who have helped me on my mental health journey – including zen buddhists Leo Babauta (a professional writer) and Alex Lickerman (a physician), and ‘happiness’ author Gretchen Rubin, to name but a few. The internet is an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration in this area, and in many others.

Society in general focuses very little on mental health, despite its significance, expecting our brains to keep ticking over rather than destroying us from within. Unfortunately, this hardly ever happens. The mind, like the body, needs to be maintained. We assume the mind will innately function, ticking along with no conscious intervention, but people are naturally prone to all sorts of unhealthy habits.

In fact, the mind must be treated much like the body: it should be used, developed, and have its needs tended to. As humans, we are drawn to indulge in destructive behaviour, such as self-gratification, insecurity and egotism (especially, but not exclusively, in youth). This tendency is a barrier to good mental health and, therefore, happiness.

Some, if not most, of these tips will hopefully resonate with lots of people. In the hierarchy of needs, first defined by Abraham Maslow, the need for mental health is above basic needs like food, water and shelter. We are very fortunate to have the freedom to think about these higher needs – so, please, read on.

To maintain good mental health, you should pay attention to your:

- Need for understanding. If something is bothering you, try to identify what it is. If you feel like it’s nothing in particular, it will either be a few things, or your conscious mind is not yet willing to admit to it. Write how you feel in a journal, talk to a close friend (who is a good listener!) or go for a walk. You’ll figure it out.

- Need for connection. You can find connection with a strong group of friends or family. If people are not readily available right now, or you don’t feel like hanging out with anyone, art can help. Regularly absorb great art, whether it’s poetry, painting, film, music or literature. Also make sure you watch the news or the latest popular TV programme to stay connected with wider society.

- Need for fun. It sounds silly, but the more industrious among us sometimes forget to have fun, so make sure you squeeze it in for at least an hour a day. Have a walk in the park, see a friend, cook a delicious meal, or read an absorbing book.

- Need for inner peace. Meditate regularly. This will build up a sense of mindfulness that will prevent you from becoming too involved in your anxious or worried thoughts in a destructive way, and help you make the most of every day. It will help you clarify your feelings, even intense ones, and allow you to go with life’s flow.

- Need for purpose. This could take many forms, but, broadly speaking, a sense of purpose is something that gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning, show up, and care. Purpose can be provided by a pet, which is something dependent on you that you need to take care of. It could also be a plant, volunteering role, or taking part in an event.

- Need to help others. I’m not really sure why, but our own troubles are put into perspective when we expend energy helping someone else. Perhaps it enables you to feel a deeper connection with humanity or the universe, which, when missing, makes you feel hollow and alone. Offer to visit an elderly relative, cook for someone, or read their CV.

- Need for creativity. Everyone is creative. I have no patience with that awful phrase, ‘creative types’. As human beings, we are all capable and, what’s more, we need to create new things to feel novelty, inspiration and joy. You could try cooking a new dish, taking up drawing, sewing blankets or writing a short story. It’s more about the process than creating an impressive end product.

- Need for meaning. There’s a reason why religion is so popular. It seems fairly obvious to me that there is no god; or, if there is, he or she doesn’t really care about us, but you can still derive meaning from so many other non-religious sources. Immerse yourself in spiritual teachings, learn as much as you can about science, or spend time in nature.

- Need for physical well-being. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked; this cannot be overstated. Eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can, have regular meals, drink water, exercise, and get enough sleep. You’ll look better and feel better. Your mind can’t function well if you don’t take care of your body. Take up a sport  you enjoy, like swimming, aim to eat a different coloured vegetable every day, and create a sleep routine.

It may seem overwhelming to read all of these things, despite this not being a comprehensive list, but there is no pressure to do all of them at once.

In Buddhism, one of the central teachings is that life is a constant state of change, and so must we be if we are to live well. So, a good rule of thumb is, no matter what you’re doing, make sure you retain a sense of riding the wave, and building momentum. Like Walt in Breaking Bad, the news of his cancer is his reason to strike out and live for the moment. You don’t have to be as extreme as Walt, and you shouldn’t do anything illegal, but adversity is the biggest catalyst for change. Use it.

Women who eat (angrily) on tubes

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I think I have some insight into why there was so much backlash from the so-called ‘feminist community’ and women at large against the guy who started a Facebook group by posting photos of women eating on tubes. Several women complained about their photos being used, but he refused to take them down for a long time. There was lots of media interest in the issue, but no one could really pinpoint why this was apparently so sexist.

To focus solely on women and their relationship to food touches on a nerve, which men probably don’t notice, because there isn’t the same stigma attached to eating for men.

Most women will be able to identify with the awkwardness of eating at work – snaffling your lunch in front of other people, and having others pass judgement on what you’re eating. ‘Oh, you’re so healthy.’ ‘What – crisps? At 10am?’ ‘Why aren’t you eating any cake?’

I don’t think men tend to take any particular interest in the eating habits of their peers, but the opposite is certainly the case for women. I think this partly stems from the immense pressure on women to tightly control their eating habits, in an effort to reach that svelte size 8 – which is in reality out of reach for most women, or would be unhealthy to attain.

For women, life is a constant battle to look thin, while resisting the tidal wave of marketing and advertising from the food industry. From the cradle to the grave, we are assaulted with images of stick-thin women, from Disney princesses, to models and actresses. Ironically, the UK food industry is currently worth £175.4 billion and still rising; some people are obviously getting rich by making us fat.

It’s a special paradox that women are charged with the impossible duty of being painfully thin, and yet constantly deluged by adverts that urge them to consume.

Typical ‘subconscious’ messaging behind an ice cream advert: Eat this chocolate ice cream – it’ll make you look and feel sexy and meet the man of your dreams.

On the other hand, from women’s magazines: Don’t eat ice cream – Kate Moss doesn’t, and as a result she is sexy and happy.

How many women can look at a picture of a Big Mac without their mouth watering? And how many count the calories in that burger?

I think this originally ‘banterous’ Facebook group, which is still online (with all but one of the photos removed) inadvertently taps into women’s private torment, and subsequently unleashed the fury of millions of beleaguered women. This man and his acolytes were not just bantering about women eating on tubes – they were, in a way, pointing cruelly at the hell that exists between women and their food. It is hard to enjoy eating without guilt, and the woman who genuinely does is rare.

We must eat – but not too much, and not on tubes, it seems.

Freshers’ Week

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Freshers' weekTaking place now in universities across the UK, Freshers’ Week is a time of great ritualistic importance for many. 

It is like the country’s biggest party for (some) British teenagers, heralding the arrival of adulthood, and affirming one’s academic excellence.

It’s also the chance to get really, really drunk.

It’s also a marketer’s dream. We love to buy into images of ourselves, and especially positive ones; soaking up the right clothes, films, books and activities. Finally, we feel as though we fit in – are among a fellowship of peers.

And, it’s true. We do fit in. Freshers go to the students’ union, drink Carlsberg, read the course books (or, some of them), make friends in halls, and sometimes become politically aware. They adopt left-wing views, become disillusioned, and boycott things.

Freshers’ Week has the potential to be a lonely time, too. Beyond the traditional image of the eager, excited fresher, hungry for new experiences, there are also those who feel homesick, overwhelmed by the difficulty of the work, or the stress of suddenly managing their own life.

Being a fresher is like a mad rush of all the good things in life: the chance to carve out a new identity, experiment with ideas, substances, relationships, and to feel a sense of belonging.

However, this sense of belonging is something that springs from the inside, and should remain with the individual throughout his or her life. With a few exceptions, a person will always belong to their family, friends, partner, volunteer groups, work, and to their society (for better, or worse).

Freshers’ Week is a baptism of fire, but the lessons and meanings derived from it should last a lifetime. So, by all means, freshers should throw themselves into university, get involved, and make friends - while not forgetting that which will continue to be there – long after the last pint of beer is drained.

P.S. With the wonderful benefit of hindsight, my friend Alex and I drew the above comic when we were cynical third-year students at the University of Southampton (though we weren’t allowed to publish it in the student newspaper in case it offended people). I feel it has only increased in resonance.

Public reactions to Robin Williams’s death are revealing

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8s5uxSSZ9lZbP2qqoITMErGxvQcRobin Williams as Patch Adams (1998)

I was saddened by the recent news of Robin Williams’ suicide, though perhaps not surprised, since I had read about his battles with drugs, which suggested he had deeper issues. I was also not surprised, but most definitely saddened by, much of the the mass media’s portrayal of this event.

To cite just a few, The Metro presented lurid descriptions of the specific manner in which he did it. The Daily Mail focused on Williams’ looming divorce battles, and bankruptcy, as potential causes of his suicide.

On the other hand, Radio 4 has dealt admirably with the topic and opened the discussion on mental health in a measured and intelligent way. A few months ago, I adored their fascinating and enlightening crash course on the history of mental health in society, called ‘In Search of Ourselves’, which was presented by Martin Sixsmith. I hope one day it is available to listen to again.

Despite lots of mature and insightful articles on the actor’s death, much hostility from the public is still present. Williams’s daughter, Zelda, was driven from Twitter by trolls, after people tweeted her Photoshopped images of her father hanging. The Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist American christian group, made signs depicting Williams in hell and are considering whether to picket his funeral. A TalkSport presenter has been reprimanded for saying that he was glad it wasn’t ‘Robbie Williams’ who had committed suicide, but still damned the news as a selfish and ‘diabolical’ act.

There have been lots of public figures – especially writers – with severe mental health disorders: Virginia Woolf experienced multiple depressive and delusional episodes, and eventually committed suicide. Stephen Fry has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and J.K. Rowling famously suffers from depression.

This has caused many people in the media to link depression with creativity, which I think is unwise. To twin depression with genius is to romanticise it – like the melancholic poet, Byron, and capture it on canvas in oil paint. It is more likely that some people with genius have depression, and vice versa. Comedians, perhaps, are more prone to depression because many admit to being victims of bullying at school, and have partly turned to comedy as a way to deal with negative feelings.

I have been touched by the national sorrow, but struck by the anger. It shows how many (and, often, influential) people still can’t see beyond the surface, and are dogged by a staggering and childlike insistence that the public persona is all there is. And, through narratives that become embedded in cultural history, the real person is lost.

There is still very little public awareness of what mental health is – despite the obvious fact that everyone has mental health problems, whether they admit it or not. In America, there seems to be more awareness of mental health issues, but it has been medicalised; hence, the stereotype of the depressed housewife on Prozac. Sometimes, depression is seen as an epidemic of modern life, but also, paradoxically, as the fault of the individual.

Depression does not strike in a day. It is likely a series of traumas, hurts and suppressions – compounded by chemical imbalances. This can be further complicated by, and sometimes combined with, delusional conditions like schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.

The nuances are many, and mass media has a tendency to dumb down complex topics for purposes of bitesize consumption. But, as most mature adults know, mental wellbeing is more than the mind, more than emotion, and more than the body. It is being in step with life, whatever that may mean for the individual.

A few years ago, when a friend suffered a mental episode in which they lost touch with reality, I was shocked, confused, and scared. I thought the episode would last forever, and lost my faith in the power of the mind. As I lacked the capacity to deal with the experience, life resumed. I later became plagued with anxiety, which grew steadily worse until my mind temporarily stopped functioning. Panic attacks ensued, and darkness.

At the time, I felt guilty that my former confident self seemed to have been a sham and deserted me when I need it most. I felt that ‘mental illness’ was catching, and an epidemic had spread. No one had any answers for me.

Then I later found out how common these problems are – but people hardly ever talk about them! And, when they are mentioned, they are cloaked in euphemism, and sterilised for ‘decent’ consumption.

We want to deny the very fact of being human – that life is hard, we suffer, and sometimes self-destruct. The outpouring of sympathy from many members of the internet community and also some parts of the mass media show how many, thankfully, are able to grasp nuance, can peer behind the laughing face and see what was obviously a troubled man. A man who was probably both good and bad – just like the rest of us.

But many could only see an ungrateful superstar, too stupid to believe his own luck – as if money and fame are all the matters, and no other questions beg to be answered. That attitude betrays the true affliction of modern life.

End

 

P.S.

Time to Change is an initiative (funded by the Department of Health) which encourages people to talk about their mental health issues – especially over a cup of tea. If enough people join in – ones who normally keep to themselves, while letting the cacophony of idiots take centre-stage – we could be having a very different conversation.

P.P.S.

This article is a very interesting alternative take on sympathy for William’s suicide.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

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Virginia Woolf - by Gisele Freund.

National Portrait Gallery, 10 July – 26 October 2014

Virginia Woolf is one of my heroes, whom I discovered on an English Literature degree introductory module, during which I read To the Lighthouse, but wasn’t particularly impressed with at the time. It wasn’t until I discovered her essays, and learned about the context of the times in which she lived, that I was hooked. Like pieces of a puzzle rendering a vague image gradually clear, the more a level of consciousness I had not been able to articulate found expression.

I took an exam and picked my question based on her quote about the experience life being comparable to a luminous halo: consciousness flickering.

I read Mrs Dalloway for my second year modernism module and A Room of One’s Own for one called ‘Images of women’. Her dazzling narratives represented so well the vagaries of consciousness, and her non-linear representations of time expressed what I had only bluntly grasped. Her calm and reasonable – but nevertheless impassioned – essays in defense of, and for the advancement of the rights of women, thrilled my soul.

I finally understood why I had always suspected it would have been much better to have been born a man. It was because of Virginia Woolf – and the lecturer who introduced her to me – that my intellectual awakening occurred.

Virginia Woolf came into my life as part of a wider context of higher education, but she has never left it. She is an inspirational light which continues to shine through the decades.

I included Mrs Dalloway in my undergraduate dissertation, which was about representations of the tea table in modernist literature, and how it symbolises the confinement of women but also may provide a route to their liberation. In my Master’s thesis, I wrote about all of her fiction and their explorations of women’s issues through tea. It was awarded a 2:1, and I can now proudly say that I have read all of her novels.

So, though I already know a lot about her, the exhibition was fascinating because it provided a complex and insightful window into her personal relationships, the places she lived, and her art. Her work suffuses London, where she spent much of her life, where I now live, and where the exhibition took place. Her work is still relevant and I have yet to discover a modern feminist writer that matches her; though I live in hope. It provided a valuable new lens through which to view a most mysterious woman and her legacy.

If you would like to see the exhibition, it runs until 26 October.

Why do women tire of high fantasy more easily than men?

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princess, girl and the dragonMy boyfriend James stated the other day that girls don’t like high fantasy (which he is perhaps regretting now), to which I responded that I was currently reading Lord of the Rings, so was I to be included in that sweeping generalisation? He quickly amended it to ‘all girls except Catherine’.

Admittedly, Lord of the Rings has not thrilled me so far. I am several hundred pages in and Frodo and the gang have only just left the Shire. The songs are so badly written as to be laughable, and the dazzling ‘Goldberry’ a poor excuse for a foray into female character. All this has left me wondering: what exactly is high fantasy?

That font of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines high fantasy as:

‘fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world… By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.’

This barely scratches the surface, but you could broadly sum the genre up as: epic magical fantasy featuring an overarching plot concerning deep questions about human nature, with characters and tropes borrowed from popular myths and legends (things like wizards and dragons). Fairytales for adults, you could say.

The subject captures my attention for several reasons, such as the fact that I really like the fantasy genre. One of my life goals is to write a fantasy novel featuring a female protagonist, because I believe that I lost interest in reading fantasy novels as I grew up because I couldn’t find one of significant quality which appealed to an adolescent female reader. Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, Rincewind and Lucy Pevensie of childhood fantasy fiction seem to dissolve into the drama of teen fiction.

Since boys and girls are less differentiated than men and women are, I think the gender of the protagonist in children’s fantasy literature is less important than in adult fiction. Unfortunately, as my hormones raged, my interest in the genre wilted due to the absence of a credible teenage female heroine. I needed a character to identify with, but whether due to a real lack of candidates or an unfulfilling library, I abandoned the genre.

As a child, I was captivated by heroic tales far removed from the banality of the everyday. After reading His Dark Materials series (1995-2000) by Phillip Pullmann , I wished desperately for a daemon of my own (a kind of spirit comrade that takes the form of an animal). I was also very keen on Pokemon and the Dragon Ball series, which could be classified as a high fantasy-anime hybrid. The vivid and fantastical nature of the stories complemented my interest in drawing, and my desire to spill the contents of my mind onto the page.

The assertion that women are less interested in high fantasy, which I feel has truth in it, almost suggests that women are more egocentric than men because they cannot feel much interest in subjects which are removed from their immediate experience, and are impoverished in imagination. It also implies that women are not fully-rounded individuals who wish to explore personal values and principles through works of fiction, or gain exposure to new ideas whilst being mentally thrilled.

That, I disagree with.

I think one of the main reasons women lose interest in stories the more fantastical they become is because these types of stories are innately masculine; employing tropes like the hobbits’ band of brothers, wise old men, war and quests. Women are relegated to romance only, the quivering damsel awaiting her hero, and there seems to be no equivalent story arc for us. Where is the band of sisters, wise old witch, or motivation so powerful that a woman will confront monsters and wild landscapes to fulfil her bildungsroman? Usually only when in search of a prince.

One reason that female characters might be less prevalent in high fantasy stories is probably because women have traditionally been less concerned with overarching questions of good and evil, which Wikipedia rightly says is a prevailing feature of high fantasy literature. Women are more commonly associated with human relationships, usually love, whether that’s between a man and a woman or that of kinship.

Except in George R. R. Martin’s wildly popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), adapted into television sensation Game of Thrones. He has somehow smashed the gender boundaries while staying true to the gritty misogyny of a barely-disguised medieval society, and created female characters that are all the more powerful, inspiring and riveting because of their constraints. His deft parallel of Arya, who rails against feminine stereotypes to evolve into a savage killer, and her sister Sansa, who passively accepts her entrapment, is skilful and insightful beyond anything I’ve seen. All the while, these struggles are set against a backdrop of ever-more gruesome battles between bloodthirsty men vying for power, who are also contending against vengeful harpies wronged by the world.

Another reason for a lack of female characters is that high fantasy stories are often based on familiar myths and legends, commonly those of Great Britain, such as the Arthurian Cycle, or Norse legends, and these contain a notable lack of interesting female roles. Many of these stories revolve around war, from which women are usually conspicuously absent – although the recent King Arthur (2004), starring a wooden Clive Owen, was a breath of fresh air, with Keira Knightly playing a sassy Guinevere.

I disagree with the use of the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ in regards to culture because they imply a hierarchy of quality which I don’t think is useful. There is a tendency for fans of genres to exclude certain examples that they don’t consider to be ‘pure’ enough, and this might also end up excluding novels that fall outside the usual boundaries of high fantasy by including features that could be considered more ‘female-friendly’, like relationships (admittedly, I do love a good romance). I think women should take a greater interest in high fantasy and devour the more ‘feminine’ novels we already have, like Ursula Le Guin’s books or Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments (2007-present) – then maybe we can dispel the myth that women aren’t interested in wizards and dragons.

Public ambiguity over “no makeup selfie”…

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Image via Independent

Why was the public so angered or allured by the “no makeup selfie” trend recently? For those of you who missed it, this was legions of girls snapping photos of themselves on their smartphone cameras without any makeup, posted with the hashtag #nomakeupselfie on preferred social media channel and making a donation to a selected cancer charity by text. Participants also publicly nominated other women to do the same. The movement wasn’t started by Cancer Research, the main cancer charity involved, but they received £8 million in six days – and ultimately enough to fund 10 new cancer trials.

Apparently, the “no makeup selfie” people were making the mistake of suggesting that something which requires only as much effort as prodding the screen of your phone and uploading to Instagram was akin to running a marathon or a hosting a bake sale. This apparently insulted cancer sufferers, because not wearing makeup is nothing like losing all of your hair and feeling terrible as a result of chemotherapy (and potentially dying, of course).

While this is serious indeed, many celebrities frequently do idiotic things that are woefully contradictory, and no one has actually said that not wearing makeup is analogous to the physical changes caused by cancer treatments. When all the men grow moustaches, no one accuses them of comparing it to the experience of prostate cancer or losing a testicle, and letting hair grow is at least as little effort as going bare-face.

At first, I wanted to understand what had led some people to lampoon this sensational trend, cast aspersions, or others to embrace it wholeheartedly. It’s undeniable that the whole thing can teach charities a lot about the fundraising potential of social media.

I toyed with the idea of suggesting that the reason so many people posted a no makeup selfie (with or without donating to a cancer charity) is because it appeals to our sense of vanity. It engaged our obsession with constant sharing and comparing: the glut of digital stimulation that has so distinctly pervaded our lives in the last twenty years. I was going to make some kind of comment about modern life, but I lost interest in that idea.

So much of what we absorb, especially if we inhabit the thinking sphere – with its higher education, broadsheet newspapers and political engagement – is judging the wider collective for a perceived slide into nihilistic retardation. We wring our hands and insist that people are so apathetic and easily entertained that they will mindlessly gorge on whatever is slopped in front of them – whether that’s a smart phone, a widescreen television, juicily exposed flesh or extra-large french fries.

When making these judgments, to be found in the columns of newspapers, magazines and personal blogs, this collective never includes ourselves.

We frequently say, “Everyone is obsessed with fiddling with their smartphones, even whilst in company… Isn’t it sad to see those couples sitting together not talking to each other? I hope we never get like that-” even while our own partner’s eyes glaze over as we launch into full rant.

It’s never us struggling with our weight and consuming too much fried chicken. We’re the ones smugly scoffing sushi and looking down our noses at people who might actually just be doing something because they enjoy it, and thinking rapturously, “Fuck my health!” Maybe.

The complaint most grating on me right now is: “digitisation is spreading like a noxious weed and ruining our lives! If we don’t curtail the rampant dissemination of technology into the very womb, then childhood itself will crumble. Children won’t be able to tell the difference between a cat and a pokémon!”

We argue that people don’t talk to each other anymore because it’s much easier to be entertained by the electronic device constantly attached to our persons. I wonder how much more accurate it would be to suggest that those people never really liked each other that much in the first place.

Perhaps the public isn’t as easily swayed by the behemoth forces of modern life as we might suggest when we’re feeling a sense of moral superiority over others. Maybe people, just like they always have, sometimes want to talk to each other and other times, they’re frankly bored with the conversation.

Maybe the no makeup selfie is not a sign that superficial vacuous celebrities (and their homunculi, the popular girls at school who can now digitally lord their superiority over you directly to your own home) are taking over the once-sacred charity world, with its “innate” moral purity. It could actually be that vain girls and celebrities are doing what they often do: glorifying themselves in mildly inappropriate settings.

Criticising human weakness is a way for many of us to shore up our own egos. Whether it’s snootily mocking someone for spending too much time on their phone, being selfishly materialistic or posting self-obsessed Facebook status updates, we love to look down on the superficiality of others.

The world of charity is a bastion for people who want to feel superior about themselves. I work in this sector and I love it, but I do sometimes feel a creeping sense that I could justify thinking of myself as morally superior because I’m working towards the greater good of humanity – even if I may only anticipate a disappointingly-average maximum salary.

We were angry because the no makeup selfie was narcissism masquerading as philanthropy, and it had infiltrated the charity community. Ostensibly, the charity world is earnest, other-focused and lacking in coiffed glamour, but the no makeup selfie smacked of contrived artificiality. Some people tried to say they were angry because the phenomenon indicated that people have become especially egotistical and superficial as a result of the spread of social media.

I think there is probably the same number of vain people now as before the birth of Twitter and Facebook – it’s simply that they now have a much more public outlet for self-expression.

We’ll always find something to panic us and complain about, all the while feeling smug that we’re not a part of it. In reality, sometimes people choose to do nice, good things and, lots of the time, they don’t. I choose to believe that, most of the time, people aren’t corrupted by social decay but are making a conscious, sometimes shallow choice – whether that’s taking a photo of themselves and posting it on the internet or growing a moustache for Movember. Image

What’s in a name?

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This blog post has taken a long time to write. I’ve been thinking about it, but starting a new job and finding a new housemate do eat away time.

So, what’s in a name? I thought of this post because I read Heather Long’s article about Greek women being legally bound to keep their maiden name rather than adopting their husband’s moniker. She ends with a typically ‘progressive’ conclusion that we are 30 years behind Greek legislation and should give women more legal options to choose their own name.

The issue of naming makes me realise how far we’ve come, and how antiquated traditions really throw this progress into relief.

I’ve always carried around the name Heath, but over the years it took on a different hue.

First it was just my family name, though my parents have been divorced for as long as I can remember so it never represented marriage to me. They finally parted ways when I was ten and just as I started university my mum got remarried, resulting in her shedding the name ‘Heath’. We don’t talk to my father any more so now it’s just my sisters and me, all sharing a name.

I sometimes feel like my name is imbued with a past long gone. Family days out are no longer, and never will be again – yet I have no desire to eradicate my identity with the name of a distant future husband. Why should I disembody years of study, jobs, degrees and creative output to feel the comforting embrace of domesticated romance?

Partly I feel that marriage is a longing for the family nest that one must fly upon becoming an adult – but I never had that. My nest was dismantled for me and I’ve never believed that marriage is my ultimate destiny.

It seems outmoded in an age where we vie for civil partnerships and women are no longer governed by their husbands. It’s obvious that the erosion of the institution of marriage – demonstrated by rocketing divorce rates – is not going to result in Babel.

But if you do want to get married, for love or money or security, or whatever, what should you do with your name? Emma Barnett, Women’s Editor of The Telegraph online, considers ‘meshing’ (combining two surnames to create a new ‘married’ family name) upon feeling sadness when observing her childhood friends’ names changing on Facebook, before concluding that she prefers the tradition of taking her husband’s name.

She feels a warm glow inside when her husband confesses, “I wanted my wife to become my family and part of that is taking my name so we are one unit,” and ends with using her maiden name for the professional world and her husband’s at home. She sees this as liberally ‘choosing’ tradition.

I think this is a fairly right wing feminist viewpoint and I don’t really agree with her reasoning. All fair and good to form a new unit – but it has to be his unit.

I kind of like my unit. My name may ultimately derive from someone I don’t see any more, but it’s also the name of my grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and sisters. My name is my identity, and belongs to the person that writes my blogs, stories and poems. What’s in a name? No more or less than you give it.

Perhaps I should think about a nom de plume.

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