Hazel McHaffie

body image

Body image

OK, I know, I know! That second helping of roast potatoes, those too-tempting chocolates, that one party too far … they’ve all left their legacy. The break from gym/exercise class/running regime, late nights, extra caffeine, missed beauty routines … they’ve played havoc with your muscle tone, your skin, your hair, your energy levels, too. The mirror is definitely not on your friend.  But rest assured, you’re not alone; plenty of folk have issues with their body image at this time of year – witness much bemoaning and bewailing on social media!

It’s cold outside, you’re on holiday, it’s the perfect time to snuggle down for some wall to wall viewing. Toes toasty warm in Great Aunt Marjorie’s hand-knitted socks, refreshment at the ready, lights dimmed … and we’re off. You get the picture.

Body image issues + DVD watching = cue for today’s blog post. A good moment to talk about a film I bought ages ago, all about real body image and identity crises: The Danish Girl.

Based on the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener, at the beginning of the 20th century, who became transgender pioneer, Lili Elbe, it’s a beautiful portrayal of unconditional love and one person’s fight to become the woman she believed herself to be.

A stellar cast were involved in the creation of this masterpiece.

Tom Hooper – director of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables – saw the potential and had the vision and understanding in the first place.
Gerda Wegener is played by Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander with great sympathy, integrity and poignancy, and we understand much of the complexity of the subject through her eyes.
And small wonder that Hooper immediately thought of Eddie Redmayne for Einar’s role; he wonderfully captures the inner conflict and outward battles faced by a transgender person, at a time long before society recognised the whole concept of ambivalent identities. Redmayne is utterly convincing as both Lili and Einar, but then we’re rather used to him inhabiting the characters he takes on to an incredible degree (think Stephen Hawkins in The Theory of Everything).
Both principal actors are completely believable in their roles bringing a quite breathtaking authenticity and emotional intelligence to their performances.
Couple that with Copenhagen as the perfect location, capturing the rather austere ultra-conservative, repressed society of the time and place, and you have a winning combination.

But what of the real story behind the film? The original and real Einar Wegener was a landscape artist married to another painter, Gerda Gottlieb, who specialised in portraits. They lived a bohemian lifestyle in Denmark at the turn of the twentieth century. When Gerda asked her husband to stand in as a model dressed in women’s attire, Einar’s love of all things feminine became apparent. Gerda’s portraits of this striking new model were noticed and professional success followed, but their marriage came under increasing strain. Lili began going out in public as a woman, sometimes with Gerda, sometimes alone. She meticulously studied the nuances of female behaviour until she was gesture perfect, and socially totally convincing. But her dream was to be perfect anatomically as well, so she eventually underwent a series of pioneering gender-reassignment surgeries, culminating in the transplant of a uterus into her body in 1931. But this last one proved to be a step too far, and she died from a lethal postoperative infection, commonplace in that era.

Knowing what we know today, it grates to hear doctors in the film talking of ‘insanity’ and ‘aberrant behaviour’, and it’s rather terrifying to watch the draconian efforts made to correct this ‘madness’ – zapping both brain and genitalia. But the brutal beating Lili gets when she minces along in a questionable outfit is alas not unknown even today. Gentler terms such as ‘confused’ or ‘different’ perhaps sit more easily with us nowadays in this context, but this film underlines the reality: Lili herself is not confused; she knows only too well that ‘This is not my body.’ And her whispered plea: ‘I don’t know what to do‘, is heart-breakingly poignant. It’s a salutary reminder that for those who find themselves in the wrong body the struggles are both huge and complicated.

Inside of Me coverI’ve had to face a fair few of my own demons this year, what with undignified hospital procedures, mutilating operations, uncertain prognoses. And of course, I’ve read about and listened to many, many people for whom this whole area is fraught with angst whilst researching the subject of body image and identity crises for my book, Inside of Me, a couple of years ago. And I’d say, The Danish Girl captures the reality as well as any novel, any story, I’ve encountered to date. Hats off to David Ebershoff (writer), Hooper, Redmayne and Vikander – all brilliant. Their descriptions of how and why they made this film were as impressive as the end product, and they’ve more than achieved their aim: to bring this difficult subject and courageous story to the attention of the public, sensitively and respectfully.

I loved it.

 

 

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Countdown

What a week. The brutal murder of MP Jo Cox; Tim Peake‘s return to earth after six months in space; an historic referendum on the UK’s position in Europe; … I’ve counted down to my own author-event at Blackwell’s Bookshop this evening, not just in days-to-the-referendum, but in significant news flashes. And I want to pay my own small tribute to Jo Cox and her family who have epitomised dignity, humanity, unity and compassion. If only her legacy could continue to overrule the vitriol and power-struggling and falsehoods which have characterised this campaign.

So, tonight we launch my latest novel, Inside of Me, into the bigger world, courtesy of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh.

Stash of Inside of Me

I always knew it would be hard to do justice to this one without giving away a surprise but significant element which is only revealed at the end. So I had to explore various angles which might ‘sell’ the book to a live audience without containing spoilers. On this occasion I decided to concentrate on two points: body image and disappearance.

I suspect that only a tiny minority of people go through life perfectly content with their own body image; I’m certainly not among their number. All manner of hang-ups, me. All my life. And sobering statistics for suicide, mental health, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessions and addictions, cosmetic procedures, gender changes, all bear testament to a wider societal dissatisfaction. Small wonder, fueled as we are by the messages, overt and subliminal, from magazines and the internet; from social media; peer pressures; completely unrealistic expectations and cultural ideals. My book fits into this context, exploring what it means to live with unhappiness and troubled thoughts and unachievable goals.

One example will suffice: 15-year-old India Grayson looks in the mirror and perceives a size 3 body as grossly overweight. She aspires to have the courage to binge eat and deliberately vomit. Her mother can only stand on the sidelines, powerless to prevent her beloved daughter, on the very cusp of adulthood, starving herself to the point of collapse, forced to wait for medical intervention until the teenager is at death’s door or at imminent risk of significant deterioration. But India’s not seeking death; she’s seeking control. So how far should she be allowed to go along the path to self-destruction? What right has her mother to intervene?

Disappearance is the second recurring theme I chose to speak about. Three teenage girls vanish one after another. So does India’s beloved dad, leaving a neatly folded pile of clothes on a windy beach. Are these events connected? India’s mother has her niggling suspicions, doubts and fears but she’s suppressed them and certainly hasn’t shared them with a single soul. But now, eight years after his supposed suicide, India is convinced she heard her father’s voice on a crowded London station. She has to find him. The truth when it emerges is not what anyone expected; it challenges their notions of family and relationships, of image and identity. It makes us wonder, to what extent is it right to pursue our own goals and ambitions, when they conflict with the interests of others?

A-Lot-Like-EveAs part of my thinking about body image, I’ve been reading A Lot like Eve by Joanna Jepson. A newly ordained curate, Jepson came to fame in the early 2000s when she challenged the courts over cases of abortion for nothing more disabling than a hare lip and cleft palate. I remember her well – and her arguments. She was uniquely qualified to adopt this cause having herself been the victim of bullying and humiliation because of a facial disfigurement, and having also witnessed reaction to her brother who has Down’s Syndrome. What I didn’t know is how she has struggled with her faith and calling. This book is a moving exploration of her own battle to find acceptance and peace in her personal as well as her religious life.  And who else would see their calling to be chaplain to the fashion industry?

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Ethical issues for everyone

I’ve been taking stock of where I am in my writing career of late and I thought I’d share with you a couple of noteworthy things from this appraisal.

The first relates to the prevalence of my subject matter.

To one side of my desk I have three large boxes full of folders. Each file contains material related to topics I’m interested in; each one a potential novel. (Yep, you’ve got the picture. I’m obsessive. Nothing newsworthy there.) But some of these files are very thick; one topic even runs to two volumes. And reviewing the contents, I’m reminded of how often I cut things out of the daily papers to slip into the said folders. Deduction? My kind of subjects must help sell newspapers; ordinary people must be interested in them.

Alert to this, I did a mini survey. Result? Just on one day this week there was something on
– mental illness (OCD and depression and self harming all dealt with)
– organ transplantation (growing human organs inside other mammals)
– assisted suicide (the BMA’s position: should doctors to be free to follow their consciences?)
– body image and identity (eating disorders, celebrities’ experiences)
– balance of risks and benefits (related to heart disease)
– care of the elderly and those with dementia
All on just one day in one newspaper.

Right to DieThe second point relates to the currency of my subject matter.

When I start planning a new book, I do try to imagine life a bit ahead of present understanding so that when it comes out it’s still relevant and topical, but I’ve been surprised at how much these issues remain current. Take assisted dying, for instance. My novel, Right to Die, was published in 2008. In the eight years since then parliament has revisited the issue repeatedly; professional bodies have regularly debated the pros and cons; a considerable number of high profile cases have come to public attention; campaigns have been fought. It’s still a hot potato and it doesn’t show any sign of cooling any time soon.

Remember-RememberThen there’s dementia. Remember Remember came out in 2010, but the ethical dilemmas it explores are as thorny today as they were then. What’s more, the number of families grappling with them is growing as the human lifespan increases; more and more individuals are exercised by the questions.

I’ve been working on an outline for the tenth and eleventh books recently and I’m staggered by the thickness of the folders on those two topics. I’m having to write notes of notes, and lists of lists, to sort out the wealth of facts and the evolution of thinking and knowledge, in order to establish what arguments and counter-arguments obtain today, and to start developing a coherent plot-line. When I first set out on my pathway to becoming a novelist, a very highly regarded agent advised me to leave my academic background behind me. I knew what he meant: the meticulous research mustn’t show through in the finished product. However, from my point of view, those decades as an university researcher stand me in good stead when it comes to delving deep, sifting and sorting facts, and understanding science.

Of course, I’m well aware that at some point I shall have to put away my writing pen, my days as an author done. But it certainly won’t be because I’ve run out of subject matter! Medical ethics is very much alive and thriving.

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Inside of Me: a sneak preview

It occurred to me during the week that many of you are people who’ve read some or all of my novels to date. I should therefore do you the courtesy of giving you a priority glimpse into the latest offering, Inside of Me, currently being critiqued by my first raft of advisors.

Inside of Me manuscriptFor your exclusive scrutiny (!) then, an outline of the theme and the plot – never before seen!

The theme: Body image. Several of the characters in Inside of Me struggle to find their own ways of dealing with or escaping from problems related to their perceptions of themselves, sometimes with devastating consequences for their families and friends. Now, I might as well come clean and tell you that I personally have long-standing issues with this topic, so it’s been quite a troubling experience immersing myself in its various manifestations. What’s more, my recent illness (which incapacitated me for six months) added yet another dimension when I realised how much of my own perceived identity is wrapped up in what I do and what I achieve – for part of this time NOTHING!

The plot: Two teenage girls vanish. One is found dead, the other is still missing without trace. Then a Scottish nurse, Victor Grayson, 36, vanishes leaving behind a neat pile of his clothes on the beach, a wife and an 8 year old daughter. The police presume he took his own life; his wife, Tonya, secretly fears he may have been involved in the disappearance of the teenagers; his daughter, India, hangs on ferociously to her picture of her dad as her best friend through the haze of faulty memories and half truths.

Roll forward seven years, and India, now 15, thinks she hears his voice 500 miles away, on King’s Cross station. At the same time a third teenager vanishes. Events – both in the Grayson family and the police department – develop new momentum. India has anorexia and her mother believes she’s hallucinating from hunger. But India’s best friend takes up the case, and when the third missing teenager is seen at the cinema with an unknown person the race is on to find her before anything bad happens to her.

Exactly what is the connection between the missing schoolgirls, a Scottish nurse, a London florist, and two youngsters with eating disorders?

Concentration chez moi is on the next stages of the publishing process but this lovely weather is tempting me out and about as well. How fabulous Scotland is – hard to believe crimes can be committed amidst such beauty; and individuals be swallowed up by their own distorted perceptions.

Glendoick GardensPoppy

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Body image

The end of a year is traditionally when one takes stock before resolving to do better in the future, so in this spirit, on the very last day of 2014, I shall share one of my (many) failings with you.

I’m one of those countless people who feel dissatisfied with what they see in the mirror … in spite of being told donkeys years ago by a lovely man (himself a skilled potter) in our church that it’s a sin to do so on the grounds that the insignificant clay pot has no business criticising its all-powerful Maker. Sorry Derrick, but I genuinely do sympathise with folk who don’t like the casing they come in for whatever reason, and my personal problems are compounded at this precise moment by the ongoing necessity to define myself as ‘ill’. Me? I’m the strong energetic type who can rise above all weakness and still live life at a hundred miles an hour … Not any more it seems – at least not until the cardiologists ‘fix’ me! Since October when these shenanigans with my recalcitrant heart began, I’ve been aware of the need to consciously work at keeping my mood buoyant in the face of physical frailty. I don’t like what I see or feel.

So I suspect it wouldn’t take the genius of Freud to deduce that that abiding angst has quite a bit to do with my present conflict with my writing about body image. I’m struggling with the effort of trying to stay inside the skin of some of my characters who are even more tortured than I am. Body image, huh? Big subject. Cue size zero models, toddlers dressed provocatively, the obesity epidemic, self harming, cyber bullying, celebrity culture, cosmetic enhancement … you know the kinds of things our society is obsessed by nowadays. So where am I with it at the end of this chequered year?

Books on eating disordersRemember this row of books I bought by way of research a while back? Well, I’ve now read them all. Phew. Good job I’m stubborn! You’ll have noted that I haven’t reviewed any of them in this blog. Why? Because I don’t think you’d be interested. But for my own records I kept a tally of my assessment of them as I went – just a brief resume and my score out of 5. Hmm. Only three stood out as an enjoyable read, but, in fairness, a large percentage are teen fiction which isn’t my bag. Having read them all, though, I’m confirmed in my resolve a) not to write for young adults; b) not to focus on anorexia but to embrace a wider context; c) to strengthen the hooks to keep readers reading.

Question now is: can this new, more-fragile me personally cope with taking on a story which presents a much more challenging set of issues? Only time will tell.

However, thus far, I haven’t been dragged below the plimsoll line of my own tolerances, but total absorption with this topic would definitely not be good for my mental health – goodness, I’m borderline neurotic as it is! I’m also conscious of another phenomenon: the more I grapple with my characters’ uncomfortable emotions, the less they disturb me. So it will be important to remember my own initial reactions in order to be sensitive to the potential shock or outrage or revulsion or whatever of my potential readers coming to this subject without preparation.

Work to do then. But there’s a silver lining. At least when I’m absorbed in the lives of my protagonists l’m not sighing at the mirror! And I did get a stack of Christmas knitting done as I ploughed through this set of books. So it’s an ill wind …

Polo jumpers

Boys pullovers

So, here we are at the end of 2014. Thank you so much for visiting my scribblings. Special appreciation to those who’ve taken the trouble to contact me; it’s so heartening to hear about your thoughts and reactions and simply to know you really are out there. And I wish you all – whatever your hang-ups and issues – peace, health and happiness in 2015.

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Please do not disturb

Today’s blog is for all you folk out there who asked for an insight into the everyday life of a jobbing writer. Yep, you know who you are. So relax; no challenging issues or troubling conundrums this week.

It has been absolutely roasting hot up here at night as well as by day, so sleep has been rather elusive. But hey, that’s had positive consequences. The old brain has had extra time to whir along, sorting, sifting, coming up with new ideas for the current book. Because yes, after the enforced break from serious writing to fulfill other responsibilities, I’m once more back in harness.  And better still, the story has now picked up a momentum of its own.

TypingOK, I created the characters originally, but they have now acquired birth certificates – passports even – of their own, and I’m simply taking dictation from them at a cracking pace. Watching and listening, wondering and exclaiming, as they go about their business and make decisions and interact. Smoke is leaking under the door of my study. Inside, the old word count is growing in a most gratifying way. I am not to be disturbed!

As you know I don’t do formulaic – against my principles. But aside from that, this book is completely different from all the others in several ways which is keeping me on my toes: Have I got the balance right? Will this be easily promoted? Is it clear what I’m trying to do? Are my characters distinctive enough? Its working title has already changed three times, which says something about the take-over bid Tonya, India and Chris have waged against me (it’s a three narrator story). They’ve hauled me into colourful and troubling situations already that require me to really think about my own values and prejudices and preconceptions. (Very good for the soul, a spot of heart-searching!) And enough to keep me awake irrespective of the temperature.

I never divulge details of a story whilst it’s in the development stage but I don’t think I’d be jinxing anything if I let you know that I’ve steered away from a concentration on anorexia to a much broader look at body image issues. And boy, has that opened up a can of worms – several actually! Whereas I was a bit ambivalent, now I’m getting excited about where this is taking me. I want to know what happens!

I really must get back to watching teenage India grappling with her deep-seated angst …

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Giving up the Ghost

Knitting and bookMay, chez nous, is a month of concerted efforts to raise money for several charities close to my heart. I’m hoping to keep the new novel simmering gently, but plans are in hand for assorted foodie events and sales and door-to-door collecting and creating goods to sell, as well. The knitting needles are already clacking ten to the dozen, at the same time as I reduce the size of my tbr pile of books. Happy days!

I won’t bore you with the domestic saga but all you bookworms and thinkers might well be interested in the reading. First up was an autobiography which proved fascinating.

Hilary Mantell has become a household name: the only woman to win the Man Booker prize twice, a prolific writer, reputedly one of the greatest living literary authors. But she’s arrived at this reputation, this successful place, through much tribulation. Giving up the Ghost: a Memoir is her own story, written back in 2003, not ‘to solicit any special sympathy’, she says, after all, many other people have survived far worse and never committed anything to paper. Rather it was an attempt ‘to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness’; to lay a few ghosts to rest – the ghosts of past relations, past mistakes, the ghosts of her own unborn children. It was never intended to tell her whole story, and it doesn’t.

As a youngster ‘Ilary’ was weighed down by the burdens of her Catholic indoctrination: ‘You grow up believing that you’re wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough. It’s like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.’  Her whole world was distorted through the lens of a perpetual guilt that started within five minutes of each confession. However, she lost her belief in God at the age of 12, a circumstance which had it’s own repercussions, although to the dispassionate observer some of her adult hauntings seem uncannily like the metamorphoses of her childhood superstitions, simply in a different guise.

There was little money and few luxuries when she was growing up but her situation resonated for me: it wasn’t unusual in the post-war years. I too remember looking on with wonder and not a little fear at the early vacuum cleaner – a Hoover Constellation which I was led to believe would gobble me whole if I allowed the nozzle anywhere near my long hair. I too vividly recall the flexes and tubing on appliances more sticky tape than original casing, coaxing each appliance to survive way beyond its sell-by date.

Secondary education for Hilary at a ‘rather posh‘ convent school was perceived through a more cynical eye, nevertheless, tales of humiliating punishments for unknown crimes, physical and psychological abuse inflicted by teachers, make sobering reading in these days where teachers are chary of even comforting a distressed child lest their contact be misinterpreted and reported.

For a long time ‘Protestantism’ carried much baggage in her mind, but it’s clear she harboured a great number of other misapprehensions and misunderstandings too, not all related to religious indoctrination and mystery, and perhaps more a consequence of the prevalent practice of simply not explaining things to children, coupled with her vivid imagination. Once again I identify with all of this. For her as well as for me ‘council housing’ carried sinister undertones. Aged three, Hilary was ‘waiting to change into a boy. When I am four this will occur‘, and she was nine before life disabused her of this notion, at which time she plummeted from ‘hero to zero‘. Neither, she discovered, was she actually destined to form a band of knights errant, nor become a parish priest, nor be gassed if she didn’t attend school.  She listened and overheard the adults but was forced to put her own construction on the meagre facts she gleaned.

Life was further complicated by the irregular arrangements within their household with her mother’s paramour, Jack, living under the same roof with the family. Hilary’s ‘childhood ended‘ (aged 11) in the autumn of 1963 when they moved to a semi-detached house in a different county, leaving her father behind, Jack now posing as her stepfather (although the relationship was not regularised through marriage), ‘the past and the future equally obscured by the smoke from my mother’s burning boats’. They now had a lawn, a rockery, an apple tree, new carpets … but another name. Nevertheless, their relocation didn’t stop new neighbours and school children taking a prurient interest in their private living arrangements, which Hilary resented greatly.

Even though her autobiography reveals a curious child with her fair share of scepticism, in many ways she remained a young woman of her time, and looking back she is amazed that she wasn’t more challenging; perhaps nowhere more so than in respect of her health. Even as a pre-teen she was never robust, but as time passed she was plagued with chronic and severe pain in many parts of her anatomy: ‘Miss Neverwell’ as she puts it. For years she was treated as psychiatrically ill, with devastating consequences. By the time she eventually diagnosed her own illness as endometriosis it was already so widespread and invasive that she was robbed of any chance of having children or ever recovering fully. Now she wonders why she didn’t insist doctors paid more attention to her complaints; back then ‘The proper attitude to doctors was humble gratitude; you cleaned the house before they arrived’. But the humiliation and shame of not being believed had a profound effect on her.

In spite of her frequent absences from school, she was clearly a very bright and able student, becoming head girl and entering law school. Once there, though, constant ill-health and an all-consuming passion for a young man changed the course of her life. They married while both still students, living in a hovel and close to the breadline. The marriage fell apart at one stage but some years later they re-married, and today she declares her worst fear is ‘losing my husband’, although curiously in the book she never gives him a name. His work as a geologist took them abroad for years – to Africa and Saudi Arabia – all rich fuel for Hilary’s active imagination and growing portfolio of writings.

Her body image was another ongoing issue for her. Following her diagnosis, a combination of medication and an underactive thyroid made her weight balloon. She went from being frail and skinny to being so large she had to move into ‘loose covers rather than frocks’. This affected not only her own behaviour – ‘When you get fat, you get a new personality’ – but also that of others – ‘When I was thin and quick on my feet, a girl with a head of blonde hair, I went for weeks without a kind word. But why would I need one? When I grew fat, I was assumed to be placid. I was the same strung-out fired-up person I’d always been, but to the outward eye I had acquired serenity. A whole range of maternal virtues were ascribed to me.’

Like many before her, Mantell was not always the hugely successful writer she is today. Publishers rejected her manuscripts – how sick they must be in hindsight! But perhaps the most surprising thing for me, reading her autobiographical account, is that she is addicted to colons and semi-colons, using them with an extravagance and abandon I have never seen elsewhere; I counted ten within two paragraphs early on in the book! A tutor on a creative writing course would make short shrift of that kind of obsession, but when you’re a writer of Mantell’s stature it seems it can become part of your signature.

On with the next ball of mohair!Charity knitting And the next book.

Knitting and latest book

 

 

 

 

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