Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A cautionary tale about illusion and reality. Or, twelve hours on the ceiling.

Warning: this is a very silly story. Occasionally, I am driven to share silly stories with you. Nobody really knows why.

Yesterday was a really good day. The farrier came, which is always a delight. The horses love Wendy the Farrier and so do the humans. Everyone ends up happier, and with very smart feet. I rode the mare and she was funny and dancing and fine and the dear Stepfather came and took some photographs of us. The dogs were in a good mood and I wrote 2455 words. This was especially gratifying because it was supposed to be an editing day, so the words were a flying bonus.

At about four-thirty, I discovered, to my intense shock, that I was in a perfectly filthy mood. I could not understand how I could have had a good day and be so cross. I was far too furious to excavate the muddled moody feelings and see what they were really about so I ruthlessly ignored them and then dreamt all night of death and disaster. I even had a finals anxiety dream, which I have not done for twenty years.

This morning I faced the dirty truth. I can hardly write this, it is so shaming. I was cross because of those damn photographs.

I have been reading a lot lately about very brilliant horsemen and women, and I’ve been watching very brilliant horsemen and women. I've been inspired recently by Ingrid Klimke and Michael Jung. I've been very proud of the red mare and getting more ambitious for her and I watched the dazzling horses and riders and dreamed dizzy dreams. I think I thought, in the very bonkers recesses of my brain, that we were Michael Jung and Roxie.

That was why I wanted the pictures.

I got home, looked at them, and felt my heart sink.

This was entirely irrational. They were charming pictures. There were some lovely bits, but I was blinded by the thing I know most surely is fatal to peace of mind, which is: false expectation. I felt like a world-beater, but I looked like what I am, which is a middle-aged amateur. The truth is, the mare and I have both taken ourselves back to school and learnt a completely new form of horsemanship from what we grew up with. We are both ladies of a certain age and going back to the beginning was always going to take time. We don't look like Michael Jung and Roxie, whatever I have in my head. We look like what we are: a slightly goofy pair of beginners.

The second heart-sinker was much, much more embarrassing. I had a picture of myself in my head not just as a Badminton-level rider, but as a slender, fit person. I pretend that I have no vanity and that I don't care about body shape. (I almost believe this.) I refuse to go on diets on principle and don't weigh myself. All the same, I believed that I thought I was going into the thickets of middle age in pretty good shape. I’m always doing stuff, after all, humping about hay bales and walking dogs and riding horses. I must have a muscle or two.

There, in the pictures, on the elegant red mare, was a rather dumpy person. DUMPY. I stared in amazement. I thought: who is that woman? I had an athlete in my head, all sinew and muscle. This person looked as if she spent quite a lot of time eating cake.

But what about all my cherished feminist, humanist, and every other bloody -ist principles about it not mattering what you look like? What about the fact that it is your good heart and your questing mind that matter, and not your damn hips? Turns out my principles aren't so cast iron as I had thought. For half a day, I felt like a wailing child. I really wanted to look sharp, and instead I looked blurry around the edges. I was that superficial.

This morning, finally understanding what the shit storm had been about, with all the stupidities dissolved after a night's sleep, I stood in front of the glass and looked down the barrel at my body. Sure enough, it is not the body of an athlete. There is a little curving about the middle. But you know, it's not bad for that of an old girl. I looked at my body and saw it as it is and I was not ashamed.

It makes me want to cry that so many women are taught to hate their bodies. I don't know what it is like for men. I suspect not quite so extreme. The women are bombarded, every day, with images of the perfect. I had thought I knew better than to fall for the con; I thought I was immune. I thought I was above all that. Serve me right for being so damn smug. Those photographs from yesterday and the lunatic reaction I had to them showed me I was not as safe as I had thought. Those haunting visions of perfection had crept into the darker parts of my brain, for all that I think I avoid them and their cunning plan. I wanted to look like one thing and I looked like another. That was a more severe crash than I like to admit. It took me 12 hours to talk myself down off the ceiling and face reality and remember about the fatal tendency of false expectations. It took me 12 hours to feel again at home in my own skin.

The red mare is not a championship horse. I am not a championship rider. She is the horse of my heart, the one who drives me on, teaches me lessons, and gives me joy. I love her so much it hurts. I am the human who is good enough for her, who keeps her happy and makes her feel safe. We don't look like something out of a magazine. We are not poster material. We are what we are: two old girls, in a Scottish field, finding something a little bit beautiful in every day. It does not have to be perfect. It just has to be ours.

I’m slightly embarrassed that I had my wig-out and that it took me half a day to understand this. But I got there in the end.


  1. I see a lovely, enviable partnership..a fleet creature allowed to run joyfully free guided by featherlight fingers.

    That said, all the collywobbles are so familiar. I had my own "oh bugger, I thought I was okay about this repressive bullshit" melty two days ago when a succession of work clothes were too snug for decency/smartness.

    Then I had my own little chuckle that I'm in my forties, I like cake...just how do I think that story ends? Not in size 10 jeans certainly! I'd been feeling so smug listening to the food-diet-calorie obsessional drivel in the mess, thinking how nice to be comfortable in my skin. Haha idiot! THEN realised that I still feel beautiful, so what's stopping me being beautiful? Not much.

    As that picture was taken I bet you felt like a centaur didn't you? No joins? Just a you and her wonder machine? Maybe if you squint you'll see it too.

    I've read back to January where the kind man brings your oil. Love love love your writing and your honesty.


  2. You are so not alone! But everything is relative. I looked at this photo and thought there's someone who has kept her figure well and looks so fit and so happy with her gorgeous mare. Inevitable comparisons ensued about my sedentary life style (although have just acquired the most adorable puppy so am hoping for an uptick in activity). I am relatively happy in my skin until I have the misfortune to see myself in a photo that brings the reality crashing around my ears. As someone who has survived aggressive blood cancer I constantly thank my body for being so resilient but the vanity police raise their ugly heads and berate me for my lack of discipline. In my work I am often filmed and photographed and it is so deeply unpleasant an experience that I have even thought of retiring early!! The truth is that whilst I have an attack of the vapours when I catch sight of myself I also think that life is too short to deprive myself of the odd delicious treat. And so I lumber on and cuddle my puppy and thank goodness for being alive and remember how blessed I am. Thank you for opening up and being so honest.

  3. Like both of the commenters ahead of me, I looked at your photograph and had an immediate hit of "look at how comfortable she is in the saddle, how in tune she and the mare are." And okay -- brace yourself -- I also said to myself, "Thankfully she isn't godawful perfect!" (as in reed-thin, like a model). That's because some years ago, when you would include a pic of yourself, you looked so damned together. It was very annoying. :)

    You are welcome to be as perfect as you want to be -- but on my end, I have learned to be over the moon about being content with myself, as is, and I'd wish that for you too. By far the greatest gift that the passage of time has given me is the realization that being happy with things as they are -- not as I would wish them to be (when the wish is as superficial as perfection of appearance) – is a key to happiness. I'm sure we all know that, but it's hard to live by when we are younger. Ain't it grand getting older?

  4. Dear Tania
    I know where you are coming from. A couple of weeks ago I posted a photo of me in 1986 walking through the felt that at that time I was in my prime - a photo of me that I loved. And I wondered 20 years on where has that reedlike person gone. It really depressed me for a while - but then at the back end of my sixth decade there are bound to be a few changes, and I doubt I will ever get the old me back now

  5. Fantastic writing, brave and true... but also I looked at that photo and thought you looked fabulous...professional, fit and at one with your horse ... but yes, it is all about expectations... all we can do is keep talking to them... Rachel

  6. It's not true that men - ageing men in particular - don't hate their bodies. My husband gets the glums about his waistline every once in a while, especially as he is on the cusp of Type 2 diabetes, and his blood sugar fluctuates between good (high side of normal) and not-so-good (oops, too high!). But he doesn't obsess and immediately put himself on hopelessly stringent regimes as a reaction to catching sight of himself in a photo at an unguarded moment or reflected in a shop window. And he doesn't have a bunch of male friends obsessing about diet and exercise and waistband sizes every time he goes out socially.

    One of my very best friends told me a year or two back "you've always struggled with your weight". But for the past two decades at least (I am 59 now). I was appalled at the expression - I most certainly haven't. My weight has fluctuated, that's all! All of its own doing depending on the season and/ or my activity levels. I haven't been tussling with it at all. I too do not weigh myself. I know when I am too heavy as I have to go up a jeans size (I keep a wardrobe of clothes in three different sizes) and I feel sluggish and slow. I count spare tyres (anything up to three - ha!) instead of weighing myself. At the mo I have two spare tyres. Later in the summer I will just have a but of a tummy (my lower abdomen, to be more precise) if I follow my usual seasonal pattern.

    I would suggest that the fact that your are the photographer, not usually the photographed is what has sent you briefly into the stratosphere. I too am the photographer. I have to ask people to take my camera and snap me to prove that I too went somewhere and had a nice time.

    But if I don't like the result, it doesn't go on Facebook, that's for sure!! Or it is cropped until only the bits I like remain. I might not be obsessed, but I am not without my little vanities.

  7. OMG - I could have written this article! Every single word of it :)
    But now, looking back I wish I'd had someone taken pictures of me riding the love of my life! He's 32 now so the days of jumping logs in the field are over with and I have no fun pictures of those days. Thankfully I do have my memories and my horse in his stall.

    1. PS - I just took a good hard look at your picture and in all reality I think you look pretty good :)


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