The curse of choice

By Ceci Browning

At eighteen, it feels as though all of our choices are still ahead of us. Most of them, anyway. While Cambridge is not a big city, it is a lot bigger than the schools we are coming from, where the couple of hundred people who make up the sixth form feel like the only other people we will ever know and could ever love, and so we brim over with excitement at the fact that it is a place full of strangers. The problem, however, is that so many of these strangers who stroll past us every day, these new friends and potential lovers, are crippled by this new sensation of infinite options. And for those among us who resist the pull of choice, those who know exactly what we want, the simple act of asking is not enough to overcome the curse that has befallen the others. We are forced to live with the fact that in our modern society of Instagram squares and Facebook friend requests, everyone is running in opposite directions. Nobody wants to commit to anybody else, for fear that there is always someone better.  

A couple of weeks ago, over a smashed avocado bagel and a stack of blueberry pancakes in a café garden, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine about exactly this. We don’t mean to, we sort of slip onto the subject accidentally, but once we arrive it feels as though we are meant to be there, and I glow a sort of orange colour with the satisfaction of being understood. She gets it, my friend. Both of us know what it feels like to have been let down by somebody simply because they are afraid of picking just one person.

Both my friend and I expected to turn up at university, break a few hearts, kiss a few frogs, and then meet the person that we would waste away our three years in the city with. After a couple of failed attempts, we imagined, with people that had odd taste in music, or were too busy earning their blue in some obscure sport, or lived at a college on the other side of town, we would fall accidentally into relationships with people who were none of these things, people who had been looking for us just as much as we had been looking for them. We were without doubt that it would unfold like this. Everyone meets their significant other as a student. Right? Everyone gets to slow dance at May Balls and share brunch on Saturdays and do inappropriate things in their gowns after formal dinners. It will happen eventually, we thought. Like our parents before us, and their parents before them, we will meet someone at university. Yes, eventually, the person who we’re going to see in our early twenties alongside will present themselves. 

I thought it would be easy, she says. 

Me too, I agree. 

But a few days earlier, leant over the shoulder of a different friend in our shared gyp and watching as he swiped through Tinder, I had discovered something. Left. Right. Right. Right. Left. Right. Right. Girls wearing mini dresses at formal dinners. Girls playing sports with swishy ponytails. Girls in patterned flares and round sunglasses. Beautiful girls, all beautiful, but just not quite enough to notice the difference between them. Not in real life, but on this app, certainly, the girls are just cut and paste copies; he knows that if he gets bored of one, there are plenty more smiley rectangles in the stack just waiting for him. He will never run out of options.

The problem, I propose to her that morning, through a mouthful of squishy green avocado, is that there is too much choice. 

My friend sighs, then wipes the maple syrup from her plate with one neat sweep of her fork, and pushes the last bite of pancake into her mouth. 

Of course the guys we want don’t want us back, I announce to her across the table. Why sleep with one girl when they could sleep with ten? Why settle for us over and over again when they could easily have a new girl each week of term? 

Both my friend and I had been seeing guys who were one foot in and one foot out. My friend went on a handful of dates with hers, to bars and to pubs, as is expected, but also for coffee, on alcohol-free daylight dates. That’s normally a good sign, she insists, brow furrowed. They got on well, she tells me, really well, talking and laughing about each of the things they had in common, and she had let herself begin to think that maybe it wasn’t just sex. What was missing after all? Was the jump from the point they were at to some kind of commitment really that far? But instead of sliding slowly into a relationship, her almost-boyfriend slid in the opposite direction. Instead of memories shared, she was left with a stony silence. She was left with walking past him but not quite saying hello. She was left with unopened Facebook messages and deleted texts. 

Mine was different from hers. He told me upfront that he didn’t want a relationship. And that was okay. Really, it was. Wanting to be in a relationship and being able to manage a casual arrangement are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that very often they occur at once, since we settle for casual until we find serious, just to pass the time. We may hope that casual turns into serious, but we keep looking, just in case. We hedge our bets. We gamble. 

But there was something special about this guy, I relay to my friend. She touches my arm gently. She nods her head and looks straight at me, hazel eyes wide. I know this look. It is a look which says, I know, I get it, I’ve been there too. I realise I do not have to tell her the rest of the story for her to know what will happen, but I carry on regardless. 

It felt different, I say again. I too thought it might be more than just sex. Him and I talked. Properly and earnestly talked. He was gentle and thoughtful and kind, and for the first time in a long while I felt comfortable opening up to somebody, letting them see the sad blue-grey parts of me that weigh me down when I don’t rush through life fast enough. More importantly, he had opened up to me too, casually but cautiously. I sensed there was a lot standing between him and how he really felt, but was honoured that I had been allowed to see at least the edges of it. For a little while, it was as if we were the only people in the entire world. 

And then it all goes pear-shaped. He panics. My friend’s guy panics. Each realises that things have gone too far, that the relationships are too real, and their fight or flight responses kick in. Yet again, we both feel the strain of time, acutely aware that it is another chance gone, another person we have put our love and our energy into only to get nothing back. We wonder why they didn’t like us enough to put both feet in. We wonder why they didn’t want to at least try. 

That morning, over breakfast, my friend and I, between us, succeed in putting two and two together. With so many options to choose from, no wonder they don’t want to jump into relationships. They are young men, dripping with vigour and confidence. At the flick of a wrist, the press of a button, they can have new, brighter, more mysterious versions of my friend and I. And why would they not do so, since whoever they end up in bed with, how do they know that there is not somebody slightly funnier, a little more sporty, just a fraction better looking waiting in line? 

Of course, there are the lucky ones among us who have found significant others, and are painfully happy in their neat pairs. I have not forgotten these individuals, but for now I am choosing to put them to one side. At eighteen or nineteen, it is understandable that so many students want to ‘play the field’, trying different kinds of people on for size. I think this desire lives in all of us. It is the curse of modern dating, and it is very difficult to root out – this awful but glittering thought that somebody else is always waiting. Somebody whose voice you haven’t heard, whose mouth you haven’t tasted, and whose body you haven’t touched. Firsts are exciting, I know, but when will firsts get boring? When will those running away from the people who care about them realise that endless choice may be more harmful than helpful? Getting into a relationship is not going backwards. Picking one person, and letting yourself be their person too, is not giving up. We forget, letting somebody care about us, especially in this spiky, unforgiving academic environment, is actually the best thing we can do. 

My friend and I pay for our breakfast and then walk slowly back through the centre of town. It is still early morning, so the streets are mostly empty. Pigeons roam the pavement. The sun shines. King’s chapel sits regally. We are still single, that has not changed, but we are okay. We are recovering, albeit slowly, from our most recent round of heartbreak. The awful curse of choice is not going anywhere, but we can accept it now, because we are sure that one day, one bright shining day, just like this one, somebody will pick us. One day, properly and wholeheartedly, in a week, or a month, or even a year, somebody will choose us over anyone else.

Photograph taken by the author.

The Invisible Woman in Cambridge Portraiture

By Eleanor Antoniou

I had never given much thought to the portrait paintings that surrounded me in my college hall, but last year when I attended a talk as part of the Rising Tide exhibition, I realised that the majority of the portraits hung in Cambridge colleges depict white European males, whose portraits converse with each other to imply that the narrative of Cambridge’s past is solely theirs. 

While I’d glanced at the male-dominated walls during formal dinners, I’d never considered the effect they can have and the atmosphere their presence creates. Today, our college spaces are no longer reserved exclusively for men, and yet the artwork installations surrounding us suggest that the female experience has been made invisible. For the students who eat beneath these portraits every week, for the women who clean our college spaces under the eyes of so many unmoving male faces, these paintings suggest a certain history of the college and portray a particular message: this is a space in which the female experience, and female achievement, are not as important as their contemporary male counterparts.  

This disproportionate representation in publicly displayed portraiture exists not just in Cambridge but across the world.  During the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement artist Mary Beth Edelson highlighted the gender imbalance in her piece entitled ‘Some Living American Women Artists’, a reworking of da Vinci’s Last Supper, in which the men are replaced with the images of 69 female artists, a striking acknowledgement of the women that are all too often left behind by history.  Even today in London, over 90% of commemorative statues are dedicated to men, something which recent campaigns are now trying to remedy.  

Naturally, the portraits in the halls of each Cambridge college have been chosen because they reflect each college’s history, and this history cannot be changed – it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that we simply swap men for women, as Edelson did in her Last Supper reworking. But does the story that we are presented with have to be so exclusive and one-sided?  

In 2018, Christ’s College celebrated the forty year anniversary of the admission of female undergraduates by reimagining the space in their Hall to recognise that, although women had only studied there for forty years, they had been involved in the life of the college for far longer than that.  Lady Margaret Beaufort refounded God’s House as Christ’s in 1505, and in her honour, Christ’s asked its students to send in their own depictions of Lady Margaret, which would temporarily replace the portraits that were already hanging, celebrating her as a woman, a mother, and an advocate for education. Students commented that their dining experience was transformed by the new exhibition; it became a more inclusive space for the college’s female students, who could see themselves reflected in the images surrounding them. 

Whilst colleges cannot rewrite their histories, they can shift the aspects of their history which they choose to portray. Evidently, bringing in new and different narratives can make a welcome and lasting impression on both female and male students, even with temporary exhibitions like Lady Margaret at Christ’s. The New Hall Art Collection at Murray Edwards College is a fine example: exhibiting one of the largest, most significant collections of modern and contemporary art by women in Europe, it champions artists who identify as women, giving them visibility and a voice.  

Women now live in all of Cambridge’s colleges: we study in the libraries, and dine in the halls. Yet the visual narratives that surround us still need to reflect this in order to highlight that Cambridge is now a place where all genders are welcome.

Featured image: portrait of Lettice Ramsay from the Rising Tide exhibition, courtesy of Newnham College, Cambridge.  

Humanity

By Kristina Harris

One day, when I was going about my business, my friend invited me to a yoga class. We both thought it could be interesting, but we were really sold on the price: free. At the beginning of the class, they packed us into a room, making space for latecomers, smiled and walked us through what would happen at this particular event. The yoga instructor ushered us into child’s pose and set an intention for the class: ‘what does your body need?’ She asked us this when things were challenging, when we were in unfamiliar poses, and when we were back in shavasana. The question was interesting to me, because she wasn’t telling us to push past everything our body was telling us so as to pull our leg behind our ears. She was asking us to ask ourselves when we can push and when do we back off. When do we need to rest for some water, and when do we need to reset in child’s pose?

I found this message interesting, because I realized I wasn’t frequently checking-in and asking, what is it that I need? For example, a few years ago, my knee was bothering me. I was running track and I always loathed seeing the trainers. I always felt like something hurt before I went, but they always gave me exercises that seemed to hurt more than my original ailment. But this time, it turned out I tore my meniscus, ACL and broke a weird bone in my knee. The whole ordeal was not ideal, and I was not a hero about the process – I was quite possibly the worst patient the kind people at NYU Langone had seen that day. My friends came by, offering their well wishes. Then they went back to their lives and I just sat there with my recently spliced open joint. Once the pain kind of subsided, I just sat with my thoughts. I was annoyed that my knee kept throbbing, and I just wanted it to be better. I had no idea how or what I needed to do – I just didn’t want to watch any more TV, and I had read everything I could read. My trainer said if I promised to try yoga, I could reduce my PT schedule. That was an easy trade. Which is why, when my friend had told me she had found a free yoga studio, I was all in.

So, in the middle of stretching and pulling my limbs every which way, I realized there was some healing happening. At first, I noticed I was breathing deeper, which helped me focus. But then I realized I could breathe, and I mean really breathe, before a test, a race, a date, anywhere! It felt like I was putting my body and brain together for the first time. I was also running faster than ever. 

Yoga was the first time someone told me to listen to my body and give it what it needs. To not push and push, but to take note of how you are actually showing up that day. Maybe one leg is more flexible than the other. Perhaps you are more sore today than you were yesterday. Maybe you are more distracted with all you have to do later, and you are a little off balance and need to focus on staying focused. But one thing was consistent: you are never the same you who shows up on the mat. But even with that obvious fact in mind, I do not always treat myself kindly for not being as flexible as I was before, or as productive as I was the day before.

Although it is innately human to know instinctively what you need, people hardly take what they need. It is brushed aside as selfish and indulgent to listen to your body if you need to rest. People don’t often treat themselves with the simple kindnesses they give so easily to others. They don’t take a walk, or get ice cream, or understand when their body is demanding a nap.

Yoga to the People brought a little slice of humanity back to me. I got a little bit more patient with myself, my body and my emotions. I am working on being kinder when I feel like comparing myself to the old me. This free yoga class was making a space for me to realize what I needed. People need something like that, something that costs nothing but heals just the same. Once while I was sitting in child’s pose at the beginning of class, a student on the mat next to me just started bawling. Not polite tears. Body wracking sobs. The teacher came over and just placed her hand on her back, and when she began to stop crying, she just looked up and said, ‘thank you, I really needed that.’ It’s odd to say, but sometimes being a human simply means you know what you need, and you act on it.

This small place in New York probably trained thousands of people from all corners of the world, but they gave each and every person something different to take back with them. They set an intention, gave people space to get some peace, and then sent them off into the world to pass it on.

So, set your own intention. Take note of what your body is telling you. And take what you need, when you need it. Show yourself a little humanity and compassion. You’re not crazy for listening to your body when it tells you to rest. It would be crazier not to. 

Image: iStock

Exploring my mind through meditation

By Aisha Niazi

It took me some time to realise that meditation was not rumination. I sat down and deeply considered the way that I breathe, wondering whether it was too shallow or slow. I became so conscious of each breath that I almost forgot how to breathe at all – when considering them at such great length, each one became a great weight. These are the thought spirals I tend to exist in, often returning to the same knowledge. Rumination produces the most endless helixes of thought.

I needed an entry point, so I turned to guided meditation. The man in my ears called me out, assuming that I probably latch onto thoughts, and that it was time to let them go. Thoughts, in guided meditations, are often likened to clouds – they are things we should notice and then let pass. I didn’t like this analogy, as I often found myself fixating on the particular shapes of clouds, extending their life-span within my mind, They eventually passed me by, but in an open sky they remained a point of attention for quite some time. 

On day three of meditation I understood the clouds analogy. I had viewed clouds as something it was inevitable I would focus on. I forgot my own agency in letting them go. I began to realise that clouds pass sooner when I let them move on, rather than clinging to their shapes and analysing their form in greater depth. Assessing their formations was rumination, even if I was not in total control of their passing. I felt annoyed – surely it is a positive thing to explore? This was the point at which I remembered the importance of balance. 

Few things should be done in excess, whether that is rumination or focus. Meditation became ten minutes of my day in which I was able to explore stillness. These two sensations may appear to be contradictory, but they can be complementary. I explore my breath by returning to it, in noticing each inhale and exhale with a still mind and steady body. This has become a non-judgemental way of exploring myself. Rather than latching onto each breath, I allowed them to pass. I felt able to let things go, to observe from a point of neutrality – from which stillness arose. I got to explore what was left when I surrendered judgement. 

Sometimes I was left with intense feelings of love. Upon realising how much joy I strip from myself by heavily ruminating on each experience, I felt silly. Meditation became child-like in the happiest of ways. It gave way to a lightness – it was my place of escape. So often I explore the world on autopilot; meditating presented me with a neutrality and stillness that improved my ability to explore. Going for walks became special – I noticed the sounds of birds, the people passing by and the clouds. I enjoyed them as temporary and allowed them to pass. I felt okay with endings.

As time moved on, I began to meditate in silence. After more time, I tried to meditate in new ways. I found warmth towards people in loving-kindness meditations. These ones can be tricky – they begin by suggesting that you imagine someone important to you and wish them happiness. That felt easy. But then you move onto those you hold contempt for. At first it felt insincere to wish well upon distasteful characters in my life. Over time I realised I do not benefit from their suffering, and I began to feel lightness towards those who occupied the more primal spaces of my mind. Eventually, I stopped ruminating on them and let them go, in a meditative, spiral-like way. 

My favourite meditation became one related to consciousness. This time the man in my ear asked me to locate my own consciousness. Flustered, I thought of my brain. Then, upon opening my eyes, I felt I was located just behind them. I did not find myself associating with my body at all. The man suggested that I focus on the sensations of my skin against the ground, the temperature of my hands, the weight of my head. At this point, I realised meditation was not just about exploring the mind – it was also about awareness of the body. I had forgotten about the body outside of its breath.

I did not become a Buddhist or even particularly spiritual; instead, I began to feel more like a child. Life felt lighter and more playful. Everything became something that inspired wonder and my own mortality stopped plaguing me. As my final year in Cambridge went on, I forgot to meditate. Mortality began to bother me again and the darkness of winter left nothing to explore. My distaste for others grew and I continued to ruminate. 

Finding myself in a spiral of rumination, I felt it was important to reconsider my time with meditation;  that I return to it as a chance to explore my own stillness. I have found Lavendaire and Leeor Alexandra’s meditations really soothing, and a gentle way to return to the craft. As the days get warmer, I seek wonder once more.

Photograph taken by the author

Re-reading

By Bea Carpenter

Every year I make some sort of New Year’s Resolution to read more, or read ‘x’ number of books with the best of intentions. As I sat down to write myself goals for 2021, perhaps in an attempt to bring a sense of normality to the potentially shapeless year, I wrote determinedly on the page “Read at least 20 books”. To some this is nothing, to others a bit of a feat, but this year for me, it was not a challenge or empty statement but a promise to myself to commit to create time in my life to read. 

Although it sometimes feels like it never happened, I graduated from Cambridge in 2020. As an ex-Natsci student my reading lists consisted mainly of textbooks, articles and the occasional quirky popular science book to spice it up. All of which were important for my understanding of the content, but not written to entertain, rather to (quite dryly) inform. 

Although my degree didn’t prescribe me to sit in the library and devour piles of books like many humanities students, I still found that trying to absorb this steady stream of incoming text both on-screen and off really took the fun out of reading. When I found myself alone with a couple of hours to spare, it was impossible not to pick up my laptop and switch off, watching Netflix that I could passively take in. Reading became a chore for my tired eyes and I had to force myself to sit with no other distractions and read. When I did so, it often felt like a sort of tick-box exercise: to learn this fact, or consider a certain point of view, or simply to keep in the loop. The productivity guilt of the Cambridge term was so deeply ingrained in me that I always tried to justify to myself the value of reading something: what would I get out of it? Or it made me think, ‘I have to read this or that’.

When 2020 forced everyone inside, many of us, with perhaps too much time to fill or out of desperation to escape reality, turned to books. I decided to actively heal my relationship with reading. 

I was always the child that liked to read; as the daughter of an English teacher, books are part of our identity as a family. When I came home from Cambridge, I noticed my dad had joined in on a trend of signing off his emails with a little note saying, “I’m currently reading …”. He told me all his colleagues were doing the same to inspire each other and the pupils they taught. This jolted me into action as I realized I never wanted to be that person with the same title there for months on end or worse still, nothing. 

So, I’ve tried to approach the challenge of ‘reading more’ as if it were a new romantic relationship. I’m making dates with Phillip Pullman and Zadie Smith, I’m prioritising books and penciling in time with them into my diary, logging the experience and making sure to discuss my feelings about the titles mainly with my (poor) lockdown bubble, my parents. I’d forgotten the joy I get from reading for pleasure. 

Reframing reading in this way has turned it from a chore into an activity. Over the last nine months or so, I’ve allowed myself the time and space to read for myself and to do it more mindfully, sort of ‘intuitively’. 

So far, it’s going well. There have of course been times when my enthusiasm has waned and my concentration has fallen off the page, captured instead by Instagram. However, now that reading is no longer a challenge or ‘task’, I’ve just allowed these fluctuations to happen, coming back to the book or a different one at another time. 

A friend said to me recently, as we lamented over the general greyness of the world at the moment, ‘you’re so lucky you like to read’.  I felt a mixture of pride in being able to agree with her now that my relationship with reading had been mended and a wish that she felt the same and for reading to not still be seen as an academic pursuit or restricted to certain groups of society. 

As cheesy as it sounds, now that I can enjoy the creativity and genius of others through the medium of reading I feel more in-tune with my own sense of self and purpose. 

To me, reading now represents community, comfort and exploration. It helps me empathize, sympathize and discover new parts of myself and the world around me, and I am ready to embrace it all. 

* If you feel inspired to update your shelves, please consider purchasing your next read from Hive (a more sustainable and ethical Amazon alternative), a secondhand bookshop click & collect service near you, from Depop or borrow/swap books with your friends. *

Illustration by the author

My Relationship with Dating Apps

By Ceci Browning

Another national lockdown. A lockdown that looks like it will last for months. For single people all over the country, this seems like bad news. No dating, no meeting people, no chance of getting into that shiny new relationship they’ve been waiting for. As public spaces empty, the stacks of profiles on dating apps build up, and yet, especially for those living alone, love, or even just company, seems further away than ever. 

First time around, in March last year, I must admit, I was one of these people. I understood this enforced dating hiatus as the end of the world. I couldn’t cope with the thought that for weeks and weeks and weeks, endlessly, my single status was set in stone, simply because the government had said so. I felt as though I was running on a treadmill, desperate to move forward but going nowhere, watching as all these months of singledom passed me by, as my affections went to waste, with nobody to aim them at. 

So, as much as I hate to write the word, let alone say it aloud, I turned to Tinder.  Just looking at that sentence on the page makes me feel ridiculous. If you’re on Tinder, you’re just looking for casual sex. If you’re on Tinder, you’re not interesting enough to find someone in real life. If you’re on Tinder, you’re desperate. These are the assumptions that are made, and that it is impossible not to label yourself with as soon as you press the bright pink button which says ‘create an account’.  

I have deleted and redownloaded each of the dating apps on my phone more times than I can count. There have been successful dates of course, second dates, and even third dates, but there have also been numerous failures, some of which have been so horrifying I have sworn to never speak of them again. It’s not that I hate dating apps. Quite the contrary, I think I am more of an advocate than most, and very often find myself defending the swiping community in the face of criticism. I would also not claim, however, to like dating apps. They are not really an enjoyable experience. They are superficial, tiresome, and repetitive. They are a plaster, slapped on top of a bruise.

However, on this occasion, stuck in my lockdown rut, the cheap thrills of a dating app were exactly what I needed. I got talking to a guy who lived in Amsterdam, just by chance. We spoke for weeks, almost every night of the spring, and then, once the restrictions were finally lifted and the summer was rolled out ahead of me, I hopped on a last minute flight over to the Netherlands to meet my lockdown lover in person. I think perhaps I went because I was desperate for some kind of adventure, to get away from the town I’d been stuck in for so long, but I tell myself that he was the reason. That I went for him. Yes, the guy I met on a dating app. 

He would come and go for work, my Dutchman, while I’d waste away the warm hours of the day wandering through the city’s many museums, peering at paintings and historical artefacts, or finding waterside cafes to sit outside of, making a single glass of fruit juice and a pastry last for hours. When the sun began to go down, I’d dip in and out of shops, gathering up paper bags heaped full of groceries, and then we’d come back together in the early evening, to cook and drink red wine with a handful of his friends, before stumbling back to my hotel room, where we’d collapse exhausted onto the huge mattress, and then talk and kiss and run our fingers over the outlines of one another until we fell asleep. It felt refreshing to love in real life again. 

Like all holiday romances, it was short-lived. I knew that it was unsustainable, that when I came home it would all be over, and then I’d be back at square one, exactly where I was when the lockdown started. Single. But something had changed. Now being on my own didn’t seem quite so bad. Now I didn’t want to swipe through endless photos of men with new glossy haircuts, hands gripped round pints, gladiator sunglasses hanging from the necklines of v neck t-shirts, big grins, Nike trainers. Now it seemed like the alternative, the being on my own, without regular pings from handsome strangers – new match! new message! new match! – this was better. I’d still get lonely sometimes, I knew that. With a long empty summer stretched out ahead of me, I knew there would be nights when I’d lie alone and all I’d be able to focus on would be the sort of empty feeling at the bottom of my stomach, the ache of an empty bed. Even with my eyes closed, I’d be able to see the space next to me. I’d see the blue-grey gap where another person should be and it would hurt. Some nights, knowing that I am still on my own, that would hurt me. 

However, travelling solo for the first time had made me realise that actually I wasn’t lonely. I was just alone. And that was totally okay. Being alone is not a terrible fate. In fact, it gives you a chance to reflect on what it is you’re looking for, to think about what it is you’re really missing and work out how you might fill those gaps all by yourself: the big questions that dating apps distract us from. Although I’d had company while I’d been away, and while it had certainly been a Tinder success story, I’d known throughout that it was all temporary. Ultimately, I reminded myself, I was a single entity, roaming the streets of a foreign country on my own. Flying back, using my single ticket to get to my single seat, eating my single packet of nuts off my single tray table, I felt fulfilled. I was no longer convinced that being alone meant being lonely, as I had believed when the first lockdown was announced. I was alone, yes, but I had people who loved me on both sides of the sea I was crossing. I wasn’t lonely.

This time around, regardless of how long the lockdown lasts, I am determined to resist the pull of dating apps, which so easily convince us that it is totally awful and irrational to be on our own. Why are we single when there are so many options at our fingertips? How awful must we be to still not have anyone? Or at least to not be talking to anyone, sowing the seeds of a relationship. This lockdown, I am committed to remembering that being alone does not have to mean being lonely. They are not the same. In fact, being alone might just give us the chance to work out what it is we really want. Being alone for a little while longer, maybe, just maybe, is going to make all the difference.

Picture taken by the author

Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

By Eleanor Antoniou

This article discusses mental health and sexual harassment.

The recently released Framing Britney Spears documentary has sparked strong reactions across social media. It reveals the details of Britney’s ongoing conservatorship which has legally blocked her from making her own decisions for 12 years.  A conservatorship is typically used for elderly people, who are unable to safely make decisions for themselves, and involves the legal appointment of a person to manage the personal decisions and finances of another. After Britney’s mental health struggles, her father was appointed as the conservator of her person and estate when she was just 27. Now Britney has stressed that she wants his control removed completely, and is currently facing a court battle against him. The New York Times documentary reported that Britney never wanted her father to be her conservator in the first place. She was denied a choice from the start, even being refused the right to hire her own legal representation. It strikes me that a man in Britney’s position would most likely have never been placed under the same conditions.  

It is not only in the courtroom that Britney has had to fight a battle. Since she first appeared in the public eye as a young teenager, Britney has battled against the misogyny of the media and the paparazzi. Her body has been repeatedly scrutinised and objectified, and her mental health became a frequent, tasteless joke during the 2000s, with the media propelling the narrative that Britney was a loose woman gone mad.  

The video clips from interviews shocked me the most: a young girl torn apart by the vultures of the tabloids. After a live performance at just age 10, one of these clips shows Britney being asked by the over-60-year-old male host if she has a boyfriend, because of course this is the most important thing to ask a pre-teen. Later, aged 17 and now a newly famous popstar, a male interviewer exclaims: “everyone’s talking about it… your breasts!” Then, during a press conference at age 21, Britney is asked if she is a virgin, a question which fuelled ongoing public debate within the tabloids.  

Britney’s breakup with Justin Timberlake revealed just how much media portrayals of celebrities are informed by sexism. The tabloids praised Justin for sleeping with Britney, as if her virginity were a trophy to be won. Britney was painted as a heart-breaker, a girl gone wild and a slut. She was obsessively sexualised yet simultaneously shamed for her sexuality, expected to tread the fine line between ‘sexy’ and ‘pure.’ It is uncomfortable and grotesque to watch Britney facing this hypocrisy, reduced to tears as she is told that one mother would shoot her because she sets a bad example for children. Meanwhile, Justin’s career only seemed to benefit: he even used the music video for Cry Me a River to further vilify Britney.

It is hardly surprising that, after years of enduring the paparazzi’s harassment with polite, sweet smiles, Britney began to experience difficulties with her mental health.  Who wouldn’t feel like hitting the paparazzi’s car with an umbrella after being followed and harassed? Not to mention her ex-husband had just blocked her from visiting her children. I’m sure many of us would have shared Britney’s anger at that moment. Yet Britney’s mental health issues and personal struggles became a cruel running joke in the media: she had had a ‘meltdown,’ she had gone ‘crazy.’  

This image of the ‘crazy’ woman has much deeper roots than we may at first assume. The very word hysteria originates from the Ancient Greek term for womb, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, female hysteria was commonly diagnosed by doctors, seemingly to explain away any mental health condition which made men uncomfortable. These ideas persist to this day in new, more insidious forms.

The list of women who have undergone a similar treatment to Britney is disturbingly long. In the 2000s, Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes were also branded as ‘crazy,’ demonising their mental health issues and struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Millie Bobby Brown has been sexualised to a horrific extent since the age of 13 in a disturbing echo of Britney’s treatment as a child star. Meghan Markle has been driven from the royal family after constant vilification by the press, a haunting flashback to their treatment of Princess Diana years before, though this time also fuelled by vile racism. Most recently and most tragically, Caroline Flack committed suicide following heartbreaking abuse by the media, who seemed to thrive on degrading a woman who was already vulnerable. The Sun even cruelly referred to her as ‘Caroline Whack’.  

The tabloid world is built on criticising, attacking and judging women, tearing apart their actions and their bodies for profit. In Britney’s case, this can only have fuelled the continuation of a conservatorship that she does not seem to want or need. The sad truth is that the press is still profiting off this misogyny today and the list of women who face media abuse continues to lengthen.

Image from Britney’s ‘Oops!… I Did It Again!’

2020 In Review

By Alexandra La Guardia

2020 was the year when the unimaginable happened and the year when nothing seemed to happen at all. The pandemic changed our lives completely, and yet we quickly adapted to the ‘new normal’. For many, the overall sense is that this year felt pointless, motionless. Covid started and life was put on pause. 

It would be insensitive and wrong to say that 2020 was a good year for the world. 1.84 million people have died, and that number will have risen by the time I finish writing this. Hundreds of thousands in the UK alone have lost their jobs. Domestic violence, inequality, and mental health problems are just a few of the negative consequences of the pandemic.

Everyone is ready to put 2020 behind them. Rightly so. But there is also good reason to reflect on this past year. As plans were turned upside down, we were challenged to think in creative ways. Time normally spent commuting, seeing friends at the pub, or travelling, was suddenly there for us to use in different ways. Students who barely knew how to flip an egg discovered their calling as cooks, Strava replaced Instagram, and books which had been gathering dust for years were plucked off the shelf. And there was also time for a little silence. Time to take a breather from the busyness of life. Early-morning walks (and the occasional lie-in) replaced the early-morning rush, and on one late-night stroll, I saw a fox standing on the roof of a car looking like he owned the street.

I realise that this paints a grey-tinged year in a rosier light than it might deserve. These little pleasures do not outweigh the difficult times that came with the virus. But while it’s perhaps a cliche, the hardest moments are often the ones which really help you to grow. The challenge of learning to live alone leads to increased independence, while living in a house full of people can make you a more patient person. Being forced to behave in a different way than we’re used to – no pubs, no hugs – can help us to think about what really makes us happy, what we can do without, and what we miss the most when we don’t have it. 

2020 made us appreciate the things we took for granted: a group of over six sitting inside on a cold night, walking into Sainsbury’s without a queue circling the block, shaking hands instead of bumping elbows, not being glared at when you cough after swallowing water the wrong way. It even makes us appreciate the things we didn’t think would be missed: waking up for lectures, spending the day in the library, airplane food, night clubs.  

And while the pandemic holds the 2020 spotlight, other historical events make this year worth remembering. In February, Harvey Weinstein was convicted for rape and sexual assault. The global Black Lives Matter movement dominated the summer, forcing countries to look at their colonial past and present-day racism. Joe Biden became president-elect, with Kamala Harris as the first female, Black and South Asian vice president-elect. And the fires that blazed through Australia and the West Coast were a wake-up call to the threat of climate change. 

2021 will not see immediate change; in fact, it looks pretty bleak.  New year, new covid variant, it seems. As vaccines are being rolled out, so are restrictions. But as spring comes, things will begin to go back to normal. Only it will once again be a ‘new normal’. One in which, hopefully, we appreciate friends, concerts, parties, art galleries more than ever before, and remember that happiness can be found in the simplest things, like a good walk on a sunny day. 

2020 proved to what extent the world is interconnected, and that societies can change drastically in response to a global crisis. So let’s hope the world can finally come together to fight that other global crisis, climate change. And maybe we can do it without furlough and face masks.

Photo is author’s own.

Is this what a feminist education looks like?

By Lucie Richardson

In December I read an article published by RTÉ entitled ‘How to teach children about feminism’ in which Dr Suzanne O’Keeffe, a lecturer in Education, encouraged parents to avoid gender specific behaviour in the presence of children. This could range from dividing chores by gender to complimenting little girls’ appearances more than their ability. As an Education student this caught my attention, and I began to reflect on my own experiences at secondary school.

From the age of eleven, I attended an independent day school for girls, with an enthusiastic headmistress keen to give her pupils an education inspired by the rebellious spirit and courageous deeds of its two female patron saints. Indeed, in the eyes of the school, nothing screamed ‘girl power’ like being scourged, tortured on a wheel, and martyred for your faith like our famous patron saint. The Spice Girls really missed a trick there. 

Our lessons were not explicitly ‘feminist’ in their content, largely due to the constraints of the GCSE and A Level syllabus. Thanks to a petition launched by teenager June Eric Udorie, feminism was finally added to the A Level Politics curriculum in 2016. As Laura Bates said at the time, a hard fought win that was long overdue. Since then, the national curriculum has received criticism for its gender bias. For example, the organisation TeachFirst has identified that the GCSE Science curriculum doesn’t include any women’s names. As a result, it has launched a ‘STEMinism’ campaign to address the gender bias present in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

It’s fair to say that my school worked really hard to challenge the gender bias present in our formalised exam based education. There was a palpable push for girls to study STEM, an industry in which women are significantly underrepresented, with only 22% of roles in STEM based careers occupied by women (WISE Campaign, 2018 Workforce Statistics). Due to the dedicated teaching and encouragement provided by our school’s female dominated science department, I feel many of my peers were inspired to pursue careers in a field they might have otherwise been deterred from. 

Similarly, occasions such as International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month were always commemorated with informative events and celebrations. Presentations often featured inspirational female guest speakers, meanwhile, the school houses were named after headmistresses who had played a significant part in the school’s history. I think this decision in particular really instilled in me a belief in the importance of education, specifically women’s education, something I have pursued beyond school through my undergraduate degree. 

Our assemblies in particular played a significant role in introducing us to the concept of feminism. Our headmistress loved taking assemblies and would usually meditate on a theme, drawing on examples of inspirational women to support her points. When I look back I think this emphasised women’s contribution to society, something that has been overlooked by my textbooks. These assemblies gave me an impressive cast of role models for me to aspire to, however on reflection, I appreciate that this was not the case for everyone. 

Our assemblies were designed to fill gaps in the curriculum, however gaps remained, as many of these inspirational figures were able-bodied cisgender white and heterosexual. If we are to create a feminist education, I would argue that it is essential that we create a curriculum that represents everyone, as opposed to one with further omissions. And here lies my problem. 

At the nearby boys school, there was a widespread perception of us as a band of lacrosse stick-toting kilt-wearing Amazons unnecessarily bemoaning the fact that the world is stacked against us. Granted, the legitimacy of any argument is undermined when expressed in a sexist neanderthal screech emitted by a teenage boy boasting an on-off relationship with deodorant. However, reluctantly, I must admit that at the heart of this somewhat sexist and disdainful observation, there lies a kernel of truth. 

What our fantastic feminist education failed to do was contextualise feminism as a movement carried forward by women form a variety of backgrounds. In short, we were shown the most pleasant part of a very complicated picture. While figures such as Rosa Parks might have been cited, it was done in a way that made the prejudice they faced seem historicized rather than impacting women in the present day. I feel it was never really pointed out to us as students that while we might face discrimination as women, we were pretty privileged compared to women from different backgrounds. At this point I must state that ALL women can face acts of violence and discrimination and I by no means seek to suggest that privilege renders women immune to these awful experiences. 

However, I believe the fatal flaw in my early feminist education at school was that by showcasing predominantly white inspirational women and presenting us with feminism through the lens of a white middle class experience, they promoted a ‘one size fits all’ ideology. This somewhat belied the complex and unequal distribution of power among women in the real world. Indeed, I am sure there is nothing more irritating than hearing a predominantly white, middle class group of privately educated Home Counties girls whinge about how hard they have it. 

In particular, it ignored the complex intersection of identities such as class, race, sexuality and feminism, first explored by civil rights activist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. Maya Angelou’s poetry was often quoted in assemblies, but was never really contextualised. It certainly should have been pointed out as belonging to a rich canon of black feminist thought born from a history of slavery, something that white women were able to profit from. In an article for Harper’s Bazaar, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle states that feminists who remain ignorant of these intersections become agents of patriarchal oppression themselves, writing: 

‘If there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of color, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels”

Do I think I was hard done by in terms of education? Of course not! However, I recognise that without interacting with a more diverse peer group at university and expanding my knowledge of feminism through my degree and personal reading, I could have become one of the women described by Cargle in her article. 

This takes me back to Dr O’Keefe’s article. While the parenting strategies designed to eliminate gender bias are undoubtedly important, they are comparatively privileged concerns when compared to the struggles faced by many women in the world. To name but one example, the Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us that many black women still live in fear of relatives and children being shot for no other reason than the colour of their skin.  Therefore, to me, the feminist education suggested by Dr O’Keeffe means nothing without engaging with other pressing social justice movements. A feminist education has to mean more than Pankhursts and Brontës, ‘who mows the lawn’ or avoiding stereotypically gendered toys. As one of my supervisors observed through her interactions with her child’s peers and their parents, these are largely middle class concerns. 

As we look forward and strive to provide new generations of self identifying girls with an education to equip them for what we hope will continue to be a better world than the present, we need to look beyond culturally dominant (largely white) conceptions of sexism. 

While I appreciate the acts that Dr O’Keeffe mentions, such as varying who mows the lawn, are necessary and tangible steps for parents to take with younger children, I feel this needs to be supplemented with more drastic action. Audre Lorde famously said, ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’ Based on this, I believe that while it is important to deconstruct expectations of gender, as Dr O’Keeffe suggests, we should prioritise teaching all children the importance of empathy. In her article, she reminds us that sexism is not something we are born with – like all prejudices, it is behaviour that is learned. It is important to remember, as Kimberle Crenshaw suggests, that sexism does not exist alone: it interacts with other forms of prejudice and discrimnation. Underpinning them all lies a lack of empathy.

By increasing a child’s ability to empathise in general, we might offer them a chance to better comprehend the unique joys and difficulties that come with different lived experiences. A feminist education is great, but we must offer one that considers and honours the full picture of women’s different experiences.

Post-publication note: Lucie’s school has been cooperative on the matter and are working to rectify the curriculum accordingly.

Fast Fashion is a Feminist Issue

 By Eleanor Antoniou

This article mentions violence and sexual harassment.

This Black Friday, major fashion brand Pretty Little Thing reduced everything on their site by up to 99%, a shocking price reduction with clothes on sale for as little as 4p. These low prices invite high levels of consumerism which are detrimental to the environment. They must also make us question who is making these clothes, how much they are being paid, and what sort of conditions they are working in.

Fast fashion therefore is a human rights issue. It is a problem which exists even within the UK, highlighted in March this year by the Boohoo/Nasty Gal scandal. Their Leicester factory was accused of modern slavery after workers were made to continue without PPE in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, being paid as little as £3.50 an hour.

But fast fashion is also a feminist issue. Approximately 80% of garment workers in the global garment industry are women, aged between 18-35, yet female workers are not on equal terms with their male colleagues.  According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, these women, including young girls, are often vulnerable and living in poverty, forced to work in unsafe and unhealthy environments where they face gender discrimination each day. Women working in factories have described being stripped of their dignity, sleeping on the factory floor, denied toilet or water breaks, and sworn at by their shouting bosses. They must survive on inadequate pay whilst predominantly male CEOs from major fashion brands take four days, on average, to earn what a female garment worker in Bangladesh will earn in her entire lifetime, according to Oxfam International.  On top of this, female workers are often balancing work with childcare and domestic activities, keeping them trapped in a cycle of poverty and exploitation.

Fast fashion is even killing these workers.  In 2013, the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 people, 80% of which were women, and including a number of children.  This building contained products of high-profile brands such as Primark, Matalan and Mango. The tragedy is all the more harrowing because the owner, Sohel Rana, was warned by an engineer that the building was unsafe.  The day before the collapse, the structure shook so much that cracks appeared and workers fled in fear.  Nevertheless, the next morning the factory’s bosses ordered work to continue, placing profits above workers’ safety.

The threat of violence and sexual harassment is also very real to women working within the garment industry.  In 2017, humanitarian agency, CARE International, who are focused on fighting global poverty,  discovered that nearly one in three female garment workers in Cambodia experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, including physical abuse, sexual violence, verbal abuse, and inappropriate touching.  Even the journey to and from work is a daily risk for these women, who have described being afraid while outside due to the threat of sexual violence and harassment.  A more recent study by ActionAid found that in Bangladesh last year 80% of garment workers experienced or witnessed sexual violence or harassment at work.  The culture of silence around these issues leaves female workers feeling they cannot speak up for fear of being shamed or losing the jobs upon which their livelihoods depend, meaning they remain trapped in these unsafe spaces. 

So what can we do to help? Firstly, we can buy less from fast fashion brands and shop in alternative places whenever we can. Since deciding I wanted to give up fast fashion in the summer, I’ve been trying to buy second hand, from places like Depop, or sustainable brands, such as nu-in or @thepopupgirlsshop platform on Instagram, who support many female-led independent labels.  It helps to view it as a fun challenge to find ethically sourced items which you really love! We also need to change the way we see clothes and fashion. When you do buy from fast fashion brands, try to buy things you actually want and will re-wear.  Ask yourself if you really like something, or if it is an impulse buy or a current trend which you won’t wear once it’s out of style.  By changing this consumer attitude, we also benefit the environment. Every week in the UK, 13 million items of clothing end up in landfill (this includes some of the items we return to fast fashion brands!).  

Additionally, we can ask our favourite brands, by email or social media, to make a change and be transparent about every aspect of their supply chain.  Even brands like H&M which have a “conscious” range are avoiding the problem: they are allowing customers to buy clothes with a clean conscience yet distancing themselves from the suffering of the people who make them.  According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, H&M have produced no evidence to show that their garment workers are being paid fairly, since they outsource their production and do not track their supply chains.  These brands need to change the way they source their products and prove they care about their workers.

Ultimately, we need to be aware of who is making the clothes we wear, and remember that these are real people, who have a right to feel safe and protected at work: fashion should never be at the expense of human rights and gender equality.  

Here are some resources for further reading: 

Remember Who Made Them podcast, Instagram: @rememberwhomadethem 

Fashion Revolution, Instagram: @fash_rev, https://www.fashionrevolution.org 

Labour Behind the Label, https://labourbehindthelabel.org 

Clean Clothes Campaign, https://cleanclothes.org

Good On You app 

Gaia Rattazzi, Instagram: @ssustainably_

Venetia La Manna, Instagram: @venetialamanna 

Aja Barber, Instagram: @ajabarber  

Illustration by Sophie Smith

Queens’ LGBT Officer’s take on the Trans Flag incident

Content warning: this article mentions queerphobia, transphobia, Trans and Pride flags being removed, Coronavirus, mental health, gender and sexual identity and gender expression.

It is hugely disappointing that Queens’ have chosen to remove the Trans and Pride flags from students’ windows, and with it remove the opportunity for personal expression and visibility of students which it claims to protect. In this case, the flag ban seems sorely misjudged for two reasons. Firstly, the removals took place in the run up to Trans Awareness Week, which is a time to celebrate personal gender identity as well as commemorate the oppressed. Secondly, since coronavirus and the second lockdown, it’s been particularly hard to maintain a sense of belonging and cohesion in the queer community. Whilst flags may seem tokenistic to some, they do offer symbolic acceptance and pride – something which is undoubtedly needed in these isolating times. To choose a celebratory week in a national lockdown feels mindless at best and targeted at worst. What is particularly damning is that in previous years, political symbols such as EU flags have been hung in windows; and therefore any argument by college that suggests allowing flags is politically antagonistic are wholly redundant. Of course, the fact that our gender and sexual identity is politicised already sits at the crux of this issue. I therefore am personally endeavouring to amend the rules to allow the hanging of flags within our room windows, as long as they do not insight hate and/or violence. And of course, I offer my continued support to those LGBT+ students who need it.

Despite my disappointment with much of the college’s response, we should be wary of  jumping to the conclusion that they are attacking the LGBT+ community. Some may find this response surprising, but having been the one liaising with college, I feel like I perhaps understand the decision processes slightly better. The minute there were complaints, senior leadership contacted me and asked what they should do to resolve it. They expressed a willingness to fly the Trans flag from the bridge and have sent maintenance out to help me achieve this. We are now in discussions about clarifying the Student Rule Book, with college potentially being more lenient on flags within windows. To take the conversation beyond flags, Queens’ has recently consented to a Gender Expression Fund, and our first applications are rolling through. I also had members of the senior college team contacting me before term started to check incoming freshers’ pronouns to ensure no one would be misgendered in supervisions or by college staff. I’m not saying that these solutions are perfect, or negate the clear institutionalised queerphobia that is attached to most Cambridge colleges. However, I feel it necessary to highlight these progressions, because this is not necessarily the damning story people thought it might be.

As a final note, whilst Queens’ has rightly been brought to the forefront of this issue due to online debate – and it’s vital that we as Queens’ students hold our college accountable for their actions – I think it’s also important to reiterate that our story is not an anomaly. It is great to see Trans flags at Robinson, Newnham and Clare, but they are sparse around the rest of the city. Many other colleges also have bans on individual flag flying and from accounts of Pembroke for instance, the college responded to issues raised by the LGBT+ officer with thoroughly offensive comparisons between the Trans flag and people hanging their dirty washing out of windows. This is not pointing the finger of blame, nor an attempt to exonerate Queens’, but rather to highlight that these issues are university wide. Regardless of the collegiate system, we are one student body and should be attempting to progress trans rights in every realm of university life. Queens’ showed us an example of how not to deal with Trans issues sensitively and correctly, so let’s use it as an example to ensure other colleges do better. 

Robbie 

LGBT+ Officer, Queens’

(He/They)

Cambridge, we have a problem: rape culture, complicity and accountability

By Xenia Haslam

Content warning: This article features detailed discussions of the reporting process surrounding rape and sexual assault.

You might think that everyone who attended the GirlTalk X Bold Voices event last week on rape culture at university would have left the talk shocked and disturbed. Of the 1.8 million students who arrive at university every year, 62% will experience some form of sexual violence during their time at university, with many victims experiencing complex trauma and mental health issues in the aftermath of their assault(s). Reporting sexual assault or rape is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when the nature of these crimes and the societal narratives surrounding them cultivate doubt and self-blame in survivors. Yet, rather than making sure that supportive systems are in place for survivors if they wish to report, universities are consistently failing to provide accessible and easy-to-navigate reporting procedures, and – in the rare case that a report is taken seriously – the outcomes of such processes overwhelmingly seem to reflect a desire to protect universities’ reputations over the wellbeing of their students.

Unsurprisingly, when speaking to others at the event it was clear that this grim picture didn’t constitute anything unfamiliar; just earlier this year, Cambridge student Dani Bradford wrote about her experiences of the University’s deeply problematic handling of her sexual harassment case, emphasising how being subjected to institutional silencing ‘isn’t just damaging – it can be actively re-traumatising’. As a result of the secondary trauma inflicted on those who decide to report, a vicious cycle has been established whereby other victims are de-incentivised from coming forward, creating a culture in which sexual assault is actively tolerated. Despite being at a higher risk of sexual violence, those marginalised by multiple aspects of their identity are even more disadvantaged when attempting to navigate these processes, since such institutional gaslighting is both underpinned and compounded by structural misogyny, racism, classism and ableism.

As an institution, Cambridge is inarguably complicit in the normalisation of rape culture. The University’s collegiate system has prevented the adoption of a singular University-wide policy for the reporting and handling of sexual misconduct cases, creating confusion about whether survivors should attempt to report through their individual colleges or at a University level; not only has this exacerbated the existing barriers survivors face to reporting sexual assault, but this has also allowed some colleges to get away with treating sexual assault much less seriously than others, as witnessed in the case of Trinity Hall’s repeated failure to take seriously its students’ allegations against Dr Peter Hutchinson. Furthermore, the intimate supervision settings that are so unique to Cambridge heighten the already asymmetrical power dynamic between academics and students. With no formal training for supervisors regarding what constitutes inappropriate behaviour with students (let alone on how to respond to students who disclose experiences of sexual violence), this has led to students being put at unnecessary risk both of sexual assault itself, but also of their experiences being invalidated.

The inflated credibility academics are awarded as a result of their perceived intellectual superiority has fostered a culture of impunity at Cambridge; instead of those in positions of power being held accountable for their actions – including their failure to take action against perpetrating students – it is those who possess the least power that are being punished for attempting to call out their perpetrators. While events such as GirlTalk X Bold Voices provide a valuable and safe space to discuss these issues, they also highlight the urgent need for those who aren’t directly affected by these issues to hold themselves accountable for the ways in which they are complicit in upholding rape culture. At an institutional level this complicity can take the form of failing to prioritise the welfare of survivors, while at an interpersonal level it can encompass anything from failing to call out problematic behaviour amongst peers to minimising the experiences of and tone policing the victims of such crimes. 

Those in the privileged position of never having had to worry about sexual violence need to educate themselves on what it means to be a true ally – it isn’t the job of survivors to open themselves up to the possibility of having their experiences disbelieved just to try to change the views of those unwilling to accept that they play a role in perpetuating sexual violence.

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, the following resources may be able to provide support:

Sexual Assault and Harassment Adviser: specialist University support worker who can provide emotional and practical support

Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre: a charity for female victims of sexual violence

Cambridge Nightline: a confidential night-time listening service

Breaking the Silence: Cambridge University’s campaign against sexual harassment and misconduct

Photo: The Tab

On Time

By Isobel Maxwell

Time has a different meaning in Cambridge. I have a feeling it has always been this way. Even before the university was founded, I like to think that the fens were the sort of rip-van-winkle place that, ripe with miasma, would slow minutes to years and speed years into the space of seconds. The result is that the eight to ten weeks that make up the term – the short time we are given here – pass simultaneously in moments and yet seem to take years to go by. Last year I stuffed so much into Michaelmas term that, back home and recounting ‘what I did in my first term’ over the Christmas dinner table my brother laughed and refused to believe me – and my mother looked worried and asked if I needed to take a break. Perhaps my actions were inadvisable, but Cambridge presented too tempting an opportunity not to take up; here was a place where the day runs on hyperdrive, and here I am to race along with it. I come from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere; nothing ever happens. I often joke that people go there to die. Sometimes I feel dead, being there; or if not dead, then caught in that same hovering place that dead people seem to exist in when you remember them, frozen in the activity of memory. Moving slowly, as if in honey. Days there are slow, weeks are slow, years are slow. Being in Cambridge, I could swear my heart beats faster. If I were to live here I think I would probably die young of a worn out ventricle. Perhaps I’d learn to ignore the pace and find my own. Perhaps I’d find a happy place in the middle and learn to cope; but I don’t make the mistake of optimism often.

Before, I couldn’t help feeling guilty in Cambridge. Like the buildings, guilt seemed a part of the city. Guilt over time: lost time, wasted time, stolen time. I felt guilty for time spent sitting in rooms drinking tea and talking, time that I was aware was chipped from the edges of lunchtimes and between supervisions and lectures and essays and the library. I felt guilty for time wasted not drinking tea and talking, usually whilst sitting in supervisions or lectures or essays or in the library. I used to sit there, in our historic library, simmering in the light of the stained glass and the steady wash of guilt that enveloped and subsumed any concentration and good intentions I might possibly have arrived with. Balance is not something I felt able to maintain here, and yet – sometime during Lent – I came to cherish that chaos. If Cambridge refused to keep to normal pace, normal time, I didn’t need to learn balance. I would outrun the clock. I was racing.

But here we are. If I was naïve enough to believe that Cambridge was a force of nature, I’ve been proved wrong. It wasn’t unchangeable. Time has frozen, paused, blurred, become soupy and strange. There are new rules. I am no longer on hyperdrive but am hovering in the way I used to in Gloucestershire. Things are moving in a different way, have flipped. There are less opportunities now, to sit and talk; everyone rushes around, literally wearing masks covering their face up to their eyes in the sense that now is not a time to stand around and talk. It isn’t safe, it isn’t sensible, it isn’t the right thing to be doing. And yet I find myself slipping between hours spent in my room, unsure of what I was doing. Where did the minutes go? Can I get them back? Where did I put them? How did I use them? I’m beginning to feel hard done by, as though my life is being stolen from me. Perhaps I am making up for all the time I stole last year. 

And yet, I can’t fairly pretend that things are catastrophic. There are still moments that remind me of the point of it all. I have begun sleeping in the bed of a boy who I am in love with. We stay up past our bedtime and watch The Office when we should be watching lectures or reading books. In the snatches between layers of sleep I wake and I see his face, lit by the lamps that stay on all night, though there are no clubbing kids to guide home. Or I water my plants on my windowsill, notice new pale circles on the leaves or outcroppings. I take clandestine trips to Sainsbury’s and think about Ginsberg and O’Hara and oranges. I catch the breeze over the river. 

It is moments like this when Cambridge works its magic and I feel the clock flicker; a moment like that lasts the whole day. Perhaps there were always moments like that to be found, but I was so busy I never had a chance to notice them. I am, now. Even if nothing else, I am noticing the moments, and the new movement of time.

Let’s Get Fat Together: our unhealthy obsession with exercise during lockdown

Rebecca Ebner-Landy 

The arrival of coronavirus has brought with it the arrival of new restrictions, and for eating disorder survivors and sufferers, it is all too familiar. I have just recovered from an eating disorder and now again find my life controlled by a sinister rulebook l know frustratingly well – just this time I’m not the one writing it. With briefings telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing – one form of exercise a day – the implicit media standards and silent pressures so many of us feel have now become direct commands. Suddenly everyone is saying “I should do more exercise because I don’t want to put on weight”, or “I’ve got to be careful I don’t snack too much given the circumstances”, or “I should eat less of this” as the prospect of food shortages becomes real. 

I’m angry that the front page of the Times’ weekend supplement is: “Offset your calories — how not to get fat at home”, instructing me on how many times I need to run up the stairs in my house to counterbalance the glass of wine I drank with my friends on Zoom last night. “30 minutes with Joe Wicks” allows me – yes “allows” is the word used – a slice of cake. Thank you so much Joe for permitting me such a luxury, and thank you too for your presumption that we all live in big houses with stairs. What would in normal times be no more than a passing comment about a post-work visit to the gym has now become the topic of conversation, the social media post, and has generated an exercise culture that is all the more compulsive and competitive. Whenever I’m online I’m being shamed by someone, somewhere saying: “You haven’t done Zoom yoga?”, “You haven’t run 5km for NHS heroes?”, “You haven’t livestreamed Zumba?”. Questions which make you ask yourself – if someone else hasn’t asked you already – “what then have I been doing instead?” 

Run faster, look thinner, do more … Aren’t we allowed to just sit and think about the strange madness of the situation – how it’s hard and how we feel scared or uncertain or depressed and perhaps, because of this, we may not want to, or not be able to do anything at all? Or do we all have to be exercising all the time? 

I’m angry because it seems that the people who go on these well-broadcasted runs are precisely the people who ignore the social distancing rules. The parks are filled with joggers weaving in and out of the dotted walkers, leaving their unwelcome scent as they brush past. 

When a jogger’s only mechanical thought is time, distance, and calories “offset”, it seems that social distancing isn’t always on their mind. Perhaps this is why I find them constantly coming too close for comfort, too close for safety. 

This is a time which we’ll look back on: judging ourselves and being judged by others for the decisions we made. What will we choose to be more important? The pleasure of posting your crafted physique in your Lululemon gear? Or the feeling that it’s probably going to make someone else – the self-isolaters, the shielders, the disabled, the depressed, your own friends who may want to exercise but can’t – feel absolutely awful. It’s like we’re at war so we should treat it as one and in these moments of uncertainty, fear and sadness, turn to collective solidarity instead: boosting people’s morale and spirits. We should run because it makes us feel good, because we enjoy it, with a favourite song blasting, half-dancing and on top of the world. 

And if we’re not out running – why should any of us have to? – let’s not let Joe Wicks become our new Shakespeare, Stormzy and Meryl Streep. Since when did exercise culture replace real culture? Has freedom become something that can only be had in the one hour of exercise, or can we get freedom within the confines of our home as we discover new worlds in books and music and films and recipes? Have we forgotten how much joy can be had from reading a great book, as you shut the back cover? Some of our freedoms have been restricted – and for good reason – but let’s enjoy the ones we have left, freedoms we so often ignore. 

So, when you’re cooking and baking and sourdough-bread making, don’t caveat it with a comment about putting on weight. “Do these cookies cancel out my run?”, “I’ll add that to my corona-kilos”, “Stay home and get fat”. Yes, you’re going to put on some weight but hey, we all will, so what’s the big deal? Let’s get fat together and accept it – collective solidarity – instead of trying to constantly outrun each other. 

And for eating disorder survivors and sufferers, accepting this will be even harder. The idea of being locked inside for an indefinite period of time, not able to buy familiar foods, or having someone do your shopping for you is already terrifying. A social media world filled with people bragging about the amount of exercise they’re doing makes it so much worse. Recovery is tough enough as it is so, please, for me, for all the people out there who are just about surviving this period, think twice before posting about your 5km run.

C13FA9DF-2B71-4A9F-81AA-F899D9C265CAimages by @eldabroglio

The Toxicity of New Year’s Resolution Culture

By Carlotta Wright

Dry January. Veganuary. Januhairy. Taking out a gym membership. Drinking more water. Achieving inner peace. We’re bombarded with online content about New Year’s resolutions come the new year, but how does this look mid to late January? For me, that’s when the shiny newness of the year wears off and the grey January blues set in. Studies show that a third of resolutions do not make it past the first month.

I wanted to start off this year’s column with this topic, now that we’re a few weeks into the year and one week into term, because I know a lot of people feel the same – it’s hard to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for becoming your best self a few weeks into the 365-day slog.

It’s not uncommon to feel anxiety and pressure. I personally love New Year’s – the feeling of rebirth, of possibility. It’s an artificial excuse to start again, a socially constructed pat on the back that tells you, “It’s a blank slate from now on”. It feels like a cosmic second chance of sorts.

But others hate it, and that’s just as valid. The expectation to look back and count up your successes and failures often feels too much, and is especially daunting for people with bad mental health or going through difficult life circumstances. Why do we do this in the first place? The pressure to make sure this year will be the year, your year, surely can’t be good for anyone.

My New Year’s resolution list this year was incredibly vague. I’ve always been like that – as much as I love the whole energy of the new year, the idea of creating a big list to hold myself accountable to has always filled me anxiety. I just knew vaguely the changes I hoped I’d make to my life this year. Drinking more water was one of them, as well as hopefully getting my writing published somewhere.

But there are pitfalls to this vaguer approach too. I was at the pub with friends a few days into January, describing the gist of my resolutions. It was pointed out to me that what I was essentially describing was inner peace. Full disclosure, I haven’t achieved self-actualisation yet.

I think there’s definitely a gendered aspect to the ‘new year’s resolution culture’ and to the productivity cult of recent years in general. Women especially seem to espouse the resolution of going to the gym, losing weight in the new year, when there’s evolutionary reasons why we gain weight in winter. Social media is already full of scrutiny, and it’s just made worse when you’ve been socialised to pick apart every aspect of your appearance, body and self all your life.

Another side to the discourse on New Year’s resolutions I’ve seen crop up a lot more lately online is ‘manifestation culture’. What is it exactly? For the uninitiated (like me), it’s essentially a more galaxy-brained way of saying “positive thinking”. It’s based on the law of attraction, and holds that our thoughts affect our reality, both consciously and unconsciously. It’s about keeping good vibes around you, mostly, and “the ability to attract into our lives whatever we are focusing on.”

But how does this fit in what we know about structures of raced, classed and gendered oppression? This New Year I’ve seen a lot of people talking about ‘manifesting the life you want’ for 2020. But if you have anxiety or depression, you can’t just decide to manifest positive things because your brain chemistry has turned against you. VICE also pointed out that putting such high importance on our thoughts goes totally against professional mental health advice to those with obsessive-compulsive disorder: your thoughts are just thoughts, nothing else.

It all goes back to the cult of productivity, which is simply unhealthy. We are more than we achieve and produce.

That’s often what makes me feel funny about all the Twitter threads and instagram stories around the 31st of December that recount (often month by month!) what that person achieved that year. The fear of comparison adds extra pressure when compiling New Year’s resolution lists, to make them as ambitious as possible, and it can definitely create a foreboding feeling towards the end of the year when we haven’t ticked enough items off our metaphorical, or literal, lists.

Of course, I’m not dismissing all efforts at self-improvement. It can be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. But when does this urge go too far? In our increasingly fast-paced, commercialised, capital-driven world, you’re valued for what you produce. But not every hobby has to be a side-hustle.

You don’t have to manifest all your goals to be worthy as a person. New year’s resolutions often, whether we want to or not, end up being about targeting a multitude of micro-flaws we see in ourselves or our lives.

Maybe we should ditch the concept of resolutions entirely. Naz Beheshti, an “executive wellness coach” recommends that we focus instead on daily, weekly and monthly “intentions” of things we want to change, rather than one big intimidating list. That job title aside, it seems a better strategy to break down your desired life transformations into more manageable chunks, turning them from “resolutions” into something a bit less pressure-based.

There’s a difference between calmly working to build better habits and obsessing over the need to fix problems we are told we have. Whether its post-holiday weight, drinking more water, doing dry January, give yourself space to fail. And finally, give yourself the gift of indulgence. New years resolution culture often has a very spartan feel about it, and it’s just not good vibes.

Art by Maggie Stephenson

Lessons from living abroad

The Year Abroad. An opportunity to develop your INDEPENDENCE, experience a new CULTURE and boost your CAREER PROSPECTS. All of the above are buzzwords taken directly from numerous presentations given to apprehensive second year MMLers, most of whom are experiencing a confusing mix of desperate excitement to escape the Cambridge bubble and wishing that nothing had to change.

The months leading up to a year abroad departure are clouded with so much logistical planning that the emotional upheaval is somewhat brushed aside. As you’re bombarded with emails from the YA Office which promise certain death if you don’t hand in forms stating your new address by the deadline, the often stressful and isolating reality of what lies ahead is overlooked. Academic contact drops off fairly drastically as soon as you leave the country and unfortunately, that also means that pastoral care can be hard to come by. For any second year MMLers out there: this article isn’t intended to put you off the coming year. It’s just a warning that the home comforts of Cambridge aren’t as easy to find in Paris or Buenos Aires or Moscow.

Even with previous experience of living abroad alone, adjusting to life away from the small Cambridge circles was challenging. In hindsight, I probably relied too much on my gap year experiences when I left for my third year and spent the weeks before I left telling myself ‘it’s fine, you’ve done this before’. The difference is that at the end of school everyone leaves the same environment and goes into something completely new, whilst on a year abroad, the unfortunate reality is that Cambridge still exists without you in it. Lectures restart, Bridgemas still gets celebrated and that’s hard to watch when you’re thousands of miles away.

Without a doubt, the most damaging thing you can do is check Instagram. Heed my advice, DELETE IT! My heart would sink every time a new story came up from one of my friends in Cambridge and eventually the gods at Android realised my pain and the app miraculously stopped working on my phone. At first, I felt even more cut off not being up to date with Cambridge news but after a few days I realised how much lighter I felt not knowing what was going on. A year abroad is about making the most of wherever you are and for lots of people, that involves partially cutting themselves off from uni events and friends. It’s impossible to get immersed in your new life abroad and stay in the loop with everything at uni too. You can’t live two lives at once.

Don’t believe people who say they loved every minute of their year abroad: it’s not true. Of course, most MMLers have amazing experiences during their travels but the rest of the time is made up of ‘normal life’ stuff which in my case often involves hours of Netflix and avoiding doing work. Having a personal crisis because you’re sat at home alone on a Friday night is completely understandable but also unnecessary. Don’t beat yourself up because you spend time alone or with other English people or international students – not every day can be ground-breaking and enlightening.

The change which affected me the most was the sudden loss of my closest female friends. I was lucky enough to have a circle of incredibly strong women around me in Cambridge who, regardless of the problem, were always there to comfort me, listen to me and bring me back to reality when necessary. Not being able to walk next door and be in the company of your best friend is so disorientating, especially when you’ve spent the last two years relying on them for emotional support. Dealing with loneliness, not feeling integrated into where I was living and, to top it all off, a recent break up was incredibly difficult without my friends. While at the time the isolation felt painful, it also proved to me that I was capable of coping with challenging times alone. Of course, phone calls home helped a lot but the fact that I managed to stick it out in a country I didn’t know with people I wasn’t that close with showed me how resilient I am.

While Cambridge does inevitably carry on without you that doesn’t mean that people forget you. Long distance friendship entails as much effort and reward as a long-distance relationship. I can safely say that both those travelling and those left in Cambridge value nothing more than talking to a long-distance friend. Outside perspectives are invaluable for both parties and thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, no one is ever too far away. The YA is temporary, but good friends aren’t.

Moving abroad is a test of your strength of character and anyone who even manages to get on the plane has already passed.

Dear MMLers, all of the YA Office’s selling points are true: a year away is so much more than a CV building opportunity. Throughout the months you spend abroad you will learn so much about your will-power, tenacity and ability to make the best of situations. After what hasn’t been an easy five months by any stretch of the imagination, I now feel ready to embark on the next six, with even more confidence in the strength of my friendships back home.

The Case for Mediocrity

In a story very common to students at Cambridge, I always did well in school. I got upset if I got an A not an A*, or God forbid a B. As a result of this, my self-worth and identity were very much tied up with my grades and the praise of my teachers. This, in a shocking turn of events, was very unhealthy. When I started my course here, the realisation that I was not even average, let alone the best was one that hit quite hard. Who was I if I wasn’t the smart one? What would define my worth if I wasn’t doing well academically?

I have spent the last couple of years really struggling to keep up, always feeling like everyone else finds it so much easier than me and not understanding why. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I won’t ever be the best here, and that’s okay. It’s taken a long time to get over the idea that I had to do something really well for it to be something fulfilling.

And Cambridge extra-curriculars don’t help with this a lot of the time. There’s a lot of competitiveness here and that translates into extracurricular stuff where it often seems like you have to be really good at something to join it. There seems to be little space for just being ok.

In my first year, I started drawing as a kind of therapy. I was at a really low point and often felt like I couldn’t even begin to do my work as it was just too much to handle. Drawing provided a space for me where I could do something non-academic that I didn’t have to share with anyone if I didn’t want to. It was my secret hobby and therefore had absolutely no pressure attached to it. I didn’t have to be the best because no one would see. If I messed it up, that was fine, I could throw it away and never think about it again.

Drawing gave me immense fulfillment even though I am not very good at it. I am still not very good at it. And that’s okay. It’s been life changing to realise that I can do something just because I like the action of doing it. I like the feeling of scribbling my pencil, I like the quiet, meditative feeling I get, and I like the act of making something just for me.

Being mediocre can be really freeing as it takes away the pressure of maintaining or improving how good you are. Over the last couple of years I’ve definitely improved somewhat, but I’m still no Picasso, and that’s fine. I know I don’t have to be.

This year I’m trying to focus on the achievements in my life that aren’t academic, things that define who I am regardless of what other people or supervisors think. I am creative, and kind. I am a loyal friend and a good listener. I am fit and strong. And I like drawing. I really like drawing.

Being the best isn’t important to me anymore and I’m trying to surround myself with people who think the same way. The competitive atmosphere here can be exhausting sometimes and I feel so lucky to have friends who are less affected by it. I know now that I am so much more than my grades and that I have value that comes from myself, not from the validation of getting praise for my work.

I am absolutely mediocre, and that’s great.

The Politics of Muting on Social Media

Is muting people rude, or is it the only way to healthily manage our social media personas?

In Cambridge’s fast-paced world, it can feel like people’s social media does nothing but sparkle. There’s been a lot written in Cambridge about imposter syndrome, to the extent that I’m almost tired of discussing it now – but it is true. Every day it feels like there’s another post about a play, or a society, or an academic achievement.

Sometimes, you just may not want to see those posts. You could unfollow them, but that would likely lead to highly fraught social situations – everyone takes offence at being unfollowed.

And that, my friends, is where muting comes in.

So what is it? I’m going to focus on Instagram here, not least because it’s interesting to consider what muting means in the context of other recent-ish innovations, like the Close Friends stories. You can choose to unfollow people on Facebook, but, honestly, who uses Facebook anymore? Instagram has taken the blue behemoth’s place as the internet’s diary, and it’s where I personally mute people, and where most people do. You press a button on their profile that makes their feed (their posts, their stories, or both) essentially disappear. No one knows they’ve been muted so, no hard feelings.

Why do we do it? Muting doesn’t happen for negative reasons alone. I’ve muted people because they post too much, or I flaked on a commitment and feel guilty when I see their posts. This is precisely why muting is interesting, psychologically. You can still love a person, but feel distanced from them, and not really want to see their content daily, or their 15 identical shots of dappled light hitting a river (guilty).

Muting people can be temporary, too, and temporary mutes can be motivated by jealousy. While I was still trying to sort out an internship mid-summer, I had to take some time out of seeing grad-scheme stories on people’s instagrams. It takes a while for me to mute someone, but not for everyone. One friend I asked for this column, joked, “I have a one strike rule…one dud post and they’re out”. Muting can be, then, a Mari Kondo-ing of your feed, if you feel your feed doesn’t spark the joy that Mark Zuckerberg intended it to.

It’s the same idea as Close Friends story – a way of exposing your truest and, sometimes, worst self. There you post a private side  to yourself, often of a confessional nature, featuring discussions about your sex life, ugly pictures, updates on mental health. It’s a side to you that you’re not necessarily comfortable exposing. Muting, however, is more often about keeping FOMO at bay, and controlling the amount and the quality of posts that stream our way. I think it’s born out of social media exhaustion – you know that feeling when you’ve scrolled a bit too long and you’re looking for something but you don’t know what? For me, it feels like eating something sweet for too long. It’s too many nice pictures – I get toothache from the saccharine smiles.

Do the different gradations of muting make a difference? What kind of relationship do you have with someone you only mute stories from, and not posts, or vice versa, or both?

Another friend, when asked, said it did make a difference. “Often I just mute stories. The main benefit for me is being able to keep the semblance of being on good terms with people at home (that I’ve drifted from), because actually unfollowing them would be too fractious”. Politeness often dictate that you can’t unfollow someone you have a fraught but civil relationship with, even if you’d rather not see their posts. To unfollow is tantamount to an official friendship end, and not everyone is ready for that.

What’s striking, then, is that these updates clearly go against what social media is allegedly about – keeping up with people. It’s a tacit understanding that we do want more private lives than our follower count may suggest. It’s funny – the internet can be characterised as some entity devoid of humanity, changing social norms, but I find it’s deeply run by unspoken codes of human interaction.

We’re moving towards a social media world where you can increasingly narrow your social circle, in apps built ostensibly for widening it to the entire world. There is a similar rationale behind private instagrams (‘finstas’ or ‘spams’). We’ve gone from anonymous chat rooms in the early 200s, to an emphasis everywhere on “curating” your online experience.

This all may seem microscopic in importance, but these apps do play a significant part in how we interact with each other in daily life, especially “millennials” and the generations below. Their effect on the etiquettes of managing human relationships are important to consider.

To conclude this ode to muting, it really does seem to allow us to manage relationships and our social media personas better in this digital age. Before Instagram and Facebook you could just drift apart and, I don’t know, not follow their MySpace anymore. But today’s internet is a far more constant onslaught of content. With friends from home, we may feel alienated from them, having changed so much at uni. Feeling cut off from people is painful, but we live in complex networks of friendships as the social animals we are. Unfollowing is a far more definite statement, when a silent, pacifying mute does the trick.

I read an article on i-D about close friends stories, that had a similar conclusion. One of the people spoken to said, “It gives me control over my digital self in a space where so much of me is exposed.” Letting go is great, but control (when it comes to social media) might be better.

Solitude and bliss

This summer felt different from pretty much every summer I’ve had, mostly because I made the effort to spend time alone, and give myself space. Space to think, breathe and act. Not to paraphrase Virginia Woolf too much, but when you have that space for yourself, it turns out, the life epiphanies come thick and fast.

Summers are a tricky thing. At least for me, they’ve always been fraught with peaks and troughs of hope and disappointment – I’d start the summer willing this to be the year I return in September fitter, prettier, somehow cooler only to face the disappointment come late August that that’s not, in fact, how life works.

In comparison, summers as a child were almost violently joyful things. I lived in Spain until I was about 13, and the thing I most remember about my summers there are the colours. Blue, mainly, obviously. There’s something about that never-ending turquoise sky of mid-July when clouds seem an impossibility. But also the bleached white of long sleepy Augusts in Madrid, when everyone else who could had left the city. When we moved to a little village nestled in the Spanish sierra, my memories are coloured with the golden green and dark woods of the mountains. You’d wake up to the sound of a donkey braying, and there’d be nothing to do but swim and sunbathe.

That’s all fantastic when you’re 8 and anxiety hasn’t hit you like a ton of bricks yet, but once it does, I’ve always found too much solitude to be counterproductive. We still go back every summer since we moved to the UK, and I’ve spent a lot of my teenage summers simmering with stress over a vague sense of not doing things right. Not sure what things those were, but they were there and they were not being done right. Summers away from my Cambridge friends can be especially apprehensive, considering I’m surrounded by the loud presence of my 3 siblings, my parents, my maternal grandparents and whatever extended family wants to drop in that day.

So, I began to seek out quiet corners of my garden, or solitary walks under the shadow that the mountain range cast on the village once the sun began to set behind it. It sounds very basic, but for someone not used to consciously taking care of myself, those 20 minutes of yoga every morning began to be a little treasure. This also meant taking care of my body as a physical thing – sport! Exercise! A revelation! I stretched, I swam 20 laps a day, I downloaded a workout app. I’d always hated sports, but there’s an undeniable magic in scratching out time to Not Think. You feel the burn, the sweat, but your mind goes quiet. Maybe the #LiveLaughLove peddlers have a point.

Doing more activity meant I slept easier, and crucially, had more focus to sit down and read. I’d gone from reading voraciously, countless books every month, when I was 10, and then as academics hit hard during my teenage years, my reading had dwindled to a point where during my first year at Cambridge I read maybe one book all year. I read three just this summer, which was a big deal for me. These were a collection of Joan Didion essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the Stephen King-esque Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, and Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Didion’s lush, verbose descriptions of her native, nostalgia infused Southern California are exactly what you need when you’re feeling morose on a summer evening, in case you were wondering.

At the end of the summer, I took my first trip to the USA, where my father is from, to do dissertation research in Richmond, Virginia. I was still reeling from the end of year-long relationship the week before, and felt cast away, tense and afraid, knowing where my anxiety could take me in stressful situations alone. It felt like a revelation to realise that I could bring the healthy, solitary habits I’d developed over the summer with me anywhere. After one stressful day at the freezing air-conditioned archives, I took myself to see a free exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. I wandered around the 21st century art rooms – large rocks stuccoed to the wall, technicolour ribbons creeping from one wall the other, all meaning and form broken down- and planned the dinner I was going to have at a nearby Cuban restaurant. That was my first meal at a restaurant alone. It’s somehow taken me 21 years to realise there’s a real joy to be had in solitude, but I’m glad I got there.