Dare you to dance at your orientation

It’s 7.15am and my alarm is blaring inconsiderately. I’ve already hit snooze three times, so I finally silence the thing to quit annoying my flatmate in the next room. Forty minutes later, I clamber down the steps from my apartment as I leave for my first class – yes, some of us have already started class.  I’m running late, so find myself half-running past a mountain, baseball stadium and skyscrapers before scrambling into the arts building at the centre of McGill campus. So begins another day on the international exchange programme.

Having abandoned George Square and the dingy basement under the Pleasance that is The Student’s office, I have been in Montreal, Canada for the past three weeks, an exchange student at McGill University for the next year. As I mentioned, classes have started already, and I am surrounded by a pile of books almost as big as I am as a write this. It seems that there is no gentle induction week here – the workload so far seems to suggest that that whole ‘academic growth’ part of my application wasn’t exactly a matter to be taken lightly.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in Edinburgh, you will just be beginning Freshers’ Week, and the reality of actual work to do is more of a vaguely familiar notion that you might remember from before those long months of summer. Out here, we don’t have Freshers, we have ‘Frosh’. It lasts a weekend, rather than a whole week (which may account for the reduced numbers of those incapacitated by Freshers’ flu) but it has all the traits you might associate with Freshers’ Week – slashed t-shirts, wristbands and even green plastic beer mugs. Plus huge club queues – sorry lines – excessive alcohol consumption and throngs of first years going wild in celebration of their recent escape from parental curfews.  However, there’s also plenty this supposedly well-seasoned third year hadn’t seen before. You know those stereotypical red-cup ‘college parties’ of American TV fame? Oh yes, they actually happen – complete with beer pong, flip cup, punch and the arrival of hundreds of absolute strangers. It could only spell hilarity, especially as my fellow exchange students marvelled at the red plastic cups and failed miserably at beer pong.

While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, a note on orientation. Edinburgh Freshers, this is my prediction for you: a 30 minute talk somewhere in the depths of DHT, Appleton or KB, followed by the retrieval of a few guidance sheets and maps that you will forget to look at, well, ever. If you’re particularly keen you might take a campus or library tour, then it’s on with the Freshers’ festivities. Foolishly, I had similar predictions for the Canadian system. Nope, orientation here is an all-singing, all-dancing event oddly reminiscent of High School Musical on tour. Megaphones, acapella, mass dance moves and 1000 pizzas were the order of the day. I can say in total honesty that I did not see that one coming.

To the Freshers – or should I call you Froshies? – I wish you a Freshers’ Week full of fun, new friends, and hopefully little in the way of Freshers’ flu. And I dare you to dance at your orientation.


“It’s Facebook Official”

It’s 11 pm the night before that horrendous deadline which has been hanging over you for weeks. You are tired, drained, and less than half of that 3000-word essay is actually written. You are firmly in what can affectionately be termed ‘the screwed zone’ and it is increasingly clear that this is going to be a very long night. Then your phone beeps: one new message. You cannot ignore it; it might be important. When it transpires that it is merely your flatmate in the next room informing you that they are also in ‘the screwed zone’, you know you should just put the phone down and carry on typing, but you cannot resist. You text back, informing them of how you are actually going to die and have no hope of finishing said essay.

Then, considering that you are already wasting time, you figure that you might as well check your email account. And the other email account. And Facebook. Now you’re in trouble. An hour later, you realise that you do not actually care whether or not that annoying girl you knew at school has changed her relationship status, and that you don’t even like the guy you are Facebook-chatting with.

By now it is clear: the interruptions and distractions of technology are endless. Our dependency on technology is ever-increasing to such an extent that it has been called an addiction. We are all too aware that our irresistible urges to obsessively check our phones, emails and Facebook are detrimental to our studies. Recent research from the University of Kent has now highlighted the way in which even small interruptions such as a flashing Blackberry or one-minute phone call can increase our reading time by up to 17 per cent. This means that if you hypothetically spent 20 hours over the course of the week ‘focussing’ on reading for an essay, you would waste an additional 204 minutes re-reading sections of the text because of these small technological distractions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t even account for Facebook and all its glorious opportunities for procrastination.

The statistics for Facebook usage are nothing short of incredible. According to the statistics, there are over 200 million active Facebook mobile users who contribute to the 500 million people that have logged in during the past month. Moreover, a report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association showed that people in the UK collectively spent 2.2 billion minutes browsing the social networking site in December alone. With such figures in mind, it seems social technology is nothing short of a national obsession. Moreover, these ‘addictions’, aside from their grievous effect our time-keeping intentions, can also have a significant impact on other areas of our lives. Research is consistently showing that, for better or for worse, our friendships, relationships, privacy and even our safety can be affected by our obsessive emailing, texting, BBM-ing, phoning, IM-ing, tweeting, blogging and especially Facebook-ing.

In some respects, social networking can be seen as good for our friendships and relationships. As students, we often live miles and miles away from our closest school or ‘home’ friends, and it would be nothing short of idiotic to say that it isn’t useful to have such a cheap and easy means of communication. Snail-mail seems to be a rare thing these days, despite the student enthusiasm for post that isn’t bills or bank statements. Texts, Facebook wall posts, threads and the odd phone or Skype call are now the way we do things. It’s called ‘social’ networking for a reason. Never has it been easier for us to keep in touch with old friends, stalk new acquaintances and spy on distant enemies.  We can keep in contact with more people than ever, no matter where they are in the world and all for the minute price of an internet bill and some evil glares when you log on in the library. Group messages are simple; events can be organised and social lives managed all with a few clicks of the mouse. It definitely has its benefits.

However quick, easy and convenient such ‘social’ interaction might be, it can also be impersonal. Sending an instant message just does not compare with an actual conversation, whether this involves a phone-call or – wonders will never cease – a face-to-face catch up. Who can honestly say that a Facebook chat session, which is conducted whilst the half-hearted participants lazily scroll through the pictures from last week’s trip to the Hive, is as valuable a contribution to their social interactions as actually speaking? Plus, if you’re spending your life tapping away at a computer keyboard in perfunctory efforts to catch up with your nearest and dearest, the relationships that you could be developing in person may well suffer for it. As Jackie Ashley, a Guardian journalist, wrote in 2009: “You cannot have a full human relationship without being in the presence of another person”.

Furthermore, research suggests that having so many ‘virtual’ relationships can cause further social problems, with our relationships becoming increasingly superficial. Diana Palmieri, a philosophy instructor at Concordia University and the University of Western Ontario, claims that the issue here is not merely one of time consumption, but that “the ‘positive feedback’ we get from superficial online interaction may take away our desire or our perceived need for further, more intimate, real-life relationships.” She continues, “the need may very well be present, but it isn’t perceived or ‘felt’ right away because we seem to be getting all that we need in our superficial interactions”.

Partly due to the time constraints and partly because of our emotional capacity, the average person does not have the ability to sustain many particularly close relationships at any one time. So the idea of attempting to keep up with dozens, maybe even hundreds of ‘friends’ at once suggests that the relationships we have with people – perhaps including our ‘closer’ friends – do become shallower and less meaningful. If we see and share what we’ve been up to, comment on what’s going on and generally have an idea of peoples’ lives without so much as even speaking to them, can we genuinely expect this to constitute a real friendship? Surely, when you discover big events in your ‘closest’ friends’ lives because you saw it on Facebook, something has gone askew. Furthermore, experts have professed a belief that our obsessive use of social networking sites can lead to an increased sense of social isolation, especially amongst introverts or those who do not use the sites, as a sociological study by McMillan and Morrison argued.

Whether you love it or loathe it, in light of the popularity – and the addictiveness – of social networking and communications technology, things are not likely to be changing any time soon.  Chances are that we will continue to check our emails, Facebook and text messages multiple times per day. We probably won’t stop turning up late to social engagements because we were instant messaging someone else, or switch off our phones to prevent interruptions when we meet friends for a catch up. We almost definitely won’t be able to resist that flashing red light on our Blackberries when we’re supposed to be finishing that essay. But we can be aware of our addiction, and make the effort to sustain our ‘real’ as well as ‘virtual’ relationships. Meanwhile, I will ignore the fact that since beginning writing this article, my phone has been defiantly bleeping at me, and I have checked Facebook more times than I care to admit.

[Originally published in The Student, March 2011)

This was the dress

On Saturday evening, I was once again running late. This phenomenon no longer surprises those who make social engagements with me, and my flatmates do not seem phased by my mad dashes around the flat in search of some item of clothing or jewellery that I have misplaced and SWEAR is not in my organised chaos of a bedroom. On one point though, they were a little incredulous. In the midst of the usual ‘oh-my-life-I-should-have-been-there-five-minutes-ago’ mayhem, I cry out in exasperation that I have NOTHING to wear. None of my dresses are quite right for the occasion, and it’s really a dress that I want to wear. Too short, too long, too tight, too loose, too formal, too casual, wrong fabric, the only cardigan that goes with it is in the wash. You get the idea. It is seven o’clock, so I know all the shops will be closed, and the panic hits in. I should have planned this better. It is at this point that one of my flatmates turns round to me and asks how exactly this is possible. I have more dresses than she has items of clothing, she argues. I cannot accept this. How could I? I am told to go and count them, and to my horror, there really are more than I expected. I return to the living room hanging my head in shame as I reveal the awful total. Thirty-four. Perhaps I am being a little ridiculous.

But then clothes are one of my things. I remember going through a phase (before the days of paying rent and bills and student loans) where I bought a new item of clothing virtually every week. I always thought I probably would have been even worse if my height and build had not – much to my annoyance – prevented much of what was in fashion from suiting me. I just love clothes. Oh my life, I am SUCH a girl. I tried to trace back to the root of my obsession (running very late by this point) and came to a few conclusions.

1) My mother has more clothes than just about any other woman I know, with the possible exception of my live-in godmother. Admittedly, they have both had thirty years to develop this collection, rarely throw anything away and can pull off almost anything. But that’s not the point, or so I try to tell myself.

2) I have an uncontrollable affinity to fashion magazines, an almost endless source of inspiration. I refuse to contemplate how much money I must have spent on ELLE, Vogue, their American teenage variations, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and other such beauties.

3) Having established my love of clothing for glorified shopping purposes, I saw this dress, back in Alexander McQueen’s A/W 2008 show, which suddenly made me appreciate the beauty of clothes and fashion in a more mature way. It is not just about feeling good – fashion and clothing can be an art form – a way in which we express ourselves. I think this dress reminded me of Swan Lake in a really bizarre way – its beauty and lightness and feminity. I just fell in love with it. Alexander McQueen quickly became my favourite British designer. I love his work – it is artistic, it is unique, it is pretty, it is boldly expressive. And Sarah Burton’s work for the label has been fabulous so far as well. I am a fan.

For the record, I eventually decided to go back to the same dress I had originally been planning on wearing on Saturday night. Sometimes I am such a girl it borders on ridiculous. It was black and white and had two birds on it, although sadly one of the McQueen variety remains in my taller, skinnier, richer dreams.

An Accomplished Woman

Sewing, painting, dancing, reading, music, singing, languages and taste. We all know what it took to be considered an accomplished woman in Jane Austen’s day. A checklist criteria that young middle and upper-class women were required to meet unless they happened to be excessively beautiful or wealthy. Of course, this was under the pretext that they intended to make a good marriage, which was of course the basic point of a girl’s upbringing and education. Outdated? Yes. Boring? Quite possibly. Fair? Not really. But at least it was simple – you were either accomplished or you weren’t.

What about now, here in the 21st Century? Society’s preference for the beautiful and the rich has not altered greatly, but for those of us who are not supermodels or millionaires, what is it that now sets us apart? What now constitutes ‘accomplished’?

One might consider answering by asking: ‘What have you accomplished?’ Are we well-travelled? Earning a decent wage-packet at the end of each month? Managing to maintain a successful career and social life? Playing on a certain talent? Finishing a great project of some sort?

Is the accomplished woman the career girl? The Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada figure? She’s glamorous, talented and successful. Ruthless, even. Or is she the one who has it all? The job, the marriage, the home, the friends, the life? Or is she the artistic one? The one with all the answers, who seems to know all about music, dance, fashion, art and literature?

Or is the 21st century accomplished women any of the above? In a society of freedom and individuality, maybe she is just the one who has accomplished what she loves. Maybe she’s a career woman, maybe she’s a perfect housewife and mother. Maybe she’s a writer or artist, maybe she paints her own house, or maybe she just manages to balance the pressures and priorities of modern life. Our lives have more complexity than those of Austen’s heroines, and our society is one that embraces individuality rather than just norms and customs. So maybe there is no longer a set mould for an accomplished woman. Maybe it’s just about accomplishing whatever it is we most desire.

Conceited Independence

If you have been anywhere near the United Kingdom during the last fifteen years, you may have noticed the proliferation of universities – and consequently students – across our towns and cities. Today, there are more students in higher education than ever before, and because of the sudden surge in student numbers, there are a few changes that maybe we as a society have yet to adapt to. Amongst the most pressing issues for us students ourselves is undoubtedly that of independence in our early twenties.

As students, most of us live away from home during semester-time, during which periods we are free to do exactly as we please. We go out on ‘school nights’ and walk home at 4am. We can skip lectures without anyone either knowing or caring and can request deadline extensions with a simple email. We stay up stupidly late for no apparent reason, downloading movies and baking at 2am purely because we feel like it. We can leave the house with no comment as to skirt length or absence of hat, we eat whatever we like, drink however we please, and take spontaneous trips across town, to other cities, into the mountains or even abroad.

Yet when we go home, we must undergo a process of adaptation. Mealtimes are a more accepted concept. So is a vague bedtime. (At home, it seems to be an accepted fact that nine nights out of ten, everyone will a) be home, and b) be in bed before 1am.) When the snow hits, we are forbidden by our parents to drive. We become dependent on them for lifts. And laundry. Whilst it’s nice not to have to do it ourselves, isn’t it a bit of a pain to have to ask where that black dress you put in the wash last week actually IS? Prior engagements are made for you, disrupting your plans for an evening out at the pub with your friends.

Don’t get me wrong, being at home in the holidays definitely has its perks. I for one adore my family, and there is something wonderful about reading my baby sister a bedtime story before movie nights and popcorn fights with my Mom, Dad and brother. You can walk in from the cold to find a warm house thanks to the presence of actual central heating. Housework is no longer exclusively your domain, and there is a dishwasher to deal with that pile of washing-up that no one wants to do. Your shampoo is bought for you and you can scrounge bus fare from the parental units. You have no worries about what you will eat for dinner as the fridge is fully stocked. Plus there is a widescreen TV. Enough said. It’s just that is can be difficult to balance the comforts of going home with the independence we are used to at university.

But then how far does this independence really go? For members of our generation, it is generally accepted that in addition to the dreaded maintenance loans and part time jobs, the vast majority of us are still dependent on an allowance from our parents in order to pay our rent and basically make ends meet – at least until we graduate at some point in our early twenties. After that, many students have little choice but to move home as they start their careers, simply because they cannot afford to do otherwise. You therefore have a significant proportion of the nation’s twenty-somethings living in a state of forced parental dependency, struggling to adapt to life at home after years of conceited independence in halls or student houses. Is it tragic, or just a reflection of the times we live in? Is it better to lose some of the independence we pride ourselves on than to struggle to make ends meet in a grotty flat above a fish-and-chip shop? Quite possibly. But then the hope is, for all of us, that when we ace our degree courses and land the dream jobs, we can achieve a real independence, free of loans and glorified pocket-money, and make a path for ourselves that our parents can be proud of, not burdened by.

If the shoe fits… buy ANOTHER pair?

Picture this: it’s late on Friday afternoon. It’s been a long, particularly draining week and you feel unable to face the crowded train just yet, so you decide to have a quick and mildly therapeutic wander through the shopping centre before heading home. You look around, casually browsing through rails of miniskirts and chunky knits and wishing payday would hurry up and arrive just that little bit sooner. Then you see them. They are stylish, elegant, the very epitome of chic. Patent black leather and 4 inch heels perfectly positioned on the table ahead of you: in short, the perfect pair of shoes. When you realise that they happen to be your size, you find yourself incapable of resisting temptation, so you sit down and slip them on, quickly becoming convinced that even Cinderella in her glass slippers could not have looked this good. But before you can prevent it, the dreaded thought of the price tag rudely interrupts the fairytale. Beautiful as the enchanted slippers may be, there’s no fairy godmother to foot the bill. You try to dismiss this particular practicality with all the old excuses you would give to your girl-friends: ‘But LOOK how fantastic they are! They’re so PRETTY.’ And as usual, out of this inner turmoil, you eventually find that the old mantra has returned: ‘I want them. I need them. I HAVE to have them.’

This is the point at which the harsh light of reality, until now just a vague idea on the horizon, finally dawns. Much as we may loathe to admit it, there is a definite line between want and need. Like so many others, my gut reaction when asked if I actually need this ‘one last pair’ of shoes is a rapidly fired, fairly defensive ‘Yes’. Unfortunately, the more I think about it, the more I waver. It’s true that I already own more pairs of shoes than I will admit to counting. And that most of them have been worn, well, once. Yet another pair would only decrease my remaining wardrobe space, which is rapidly dwindling. Incidentally, so is my bank balance, whilst my student debt remains as robust as ever. All of a sudden, I am questioning just how good these shoes will look when I’m stumbling out of a nightclub at 3am tomorrow morning, when my party-worn feet are sticking to chewing gum and various other concoctions on the floor. Then before I know it, I am suddenly looking past the immediate purchase-related adrenaline rush of handing over the credit card, and doubting the ability of these shoes to significantly contribute to my long-term happiness. Chances are, my future well-being will not be entirely dependent on this particular pair of shoes (although if it turns out that I am wrong about that, I reserve the right to be very annoyed). So, no matter how much the irrational part of my brain might wish it were otherwise, it seems that I might not actually need them after all.

Thankfully, this doesn’t stop me from being almost completely justified in wanting them. After all, they are beautiful. They will look incredible. They will coordinate perfectly with an obscene number of my outfits and be suitable for any occasion – from coffee with friends to a black-tie dinner. There are very few shoes with such natural versatility. They will complete the outfit. No, they will make the outfit. This is not to mention the obvious psychological benefits of indulging in a purchase. Few women can deny the feeling of supreme satisfaction and excitement that goes hand-in-hand with successful shoe-shopping. Moreover, the subsequent attentiveness and compliments of others cannot fail to boost one’s confidence. In an age of some uncertainties, whether it’s economic, professional or personal, it does us good to start walking tall, head held high, feeling fabulous. And if it’s 4 inches of sleek stilettoed perfection that helps us on our way, I personally have no issue with that. In the immortal words of Carrie Bradshaw: ‘It’s hard to walk in a single woman’s shoes. That’s why sometimes, you need really special shoes.’. And if you can afford it, surely the loss of that tiny space left at the back of the wardrobe is a sacrifice worth making…

At the end of the day, like so many things in life, it merely requires a little judgement. Do you really need them? Probably not. But if you can afford them, justify them and potentially promise yourself to become a better person as a result of either your purchase or your subsequent good mood, what’s the harm? However, if the only thing you’ll feel in addition to those extra 4inches of height is a growing sense of guilt and concern about your impending bankruptcy, it’s probably best to walk away and accept that the forty-three pairs (that you will admit to) in the bottom of your closet may just have to suffice.

Confessions of a Justified Slimmer

A questionnaire recently told me that I am a compulsive dieter. As anyone who knows me sufficiently well will know, I have spent the past five years or so constantly on and off different eating plans, or saying that I am ‘being good’ this week – all in the vain effort to avoid the dreaded term ‘diet’, and all its associations with super-thin California girls eating about three lettuce leaves a day or a desperate thirty-something surviving on protein shakes. When all is said, done and not eaten though, I can quite honestly say that yes, I am often on some form of diet. The question I have often been asked is: why?

Now, I am no stick. I am 5’4’’ with curves. I am womanly. But neither am I fat. I am a healthy weight for my height and a UK dress size 8-10. (Well, slightly more often 10 right now, rather irrationally making me feel huge and hence a brand-new ‘being good’ cycle has begun.) I am constantly asked by friends who notice changes in my eating habits why I perceive the need to lose weight. My answer is generally that I do not feel slim enough, especially if I only have a matter of weeks before braving the bikini, a task which I loathe so much it almost hurts. I feel one-hundred percent justified in this, but unfortunately for me, many of my friends seem to disagree, arguing that I have body image ‘issues’ and ‘distorted perception’. Flattering as this is, I – like so many other women – never quite believe them. I grew up with a 5’6’’ size 10 (occasionally 8) mother who has been on and off detox diets since before I hit my teens, despite the fact that she is already one of the slimmest in her friendship group. In no way do I blame her, but having such a slim mother who always looks fabulous inevitably piled on the pressure to look good as I grew up. Watching what I ate became a fundamental part of my teenage years. This was magnified by the quiet but fierce competition to look good in an all-girls school. Incidentally, a recent report found that anorexia and bulimia are more prevalent in single-sex schools than mixed ones, possibly due to the greater pressure (both social and academic) that the girls are put under from such a young age. Add all this to the airbrushed, skeletal glamazons glorified by the fashion world and media over the past decade, and you provide a girl with a seemingly solid self-justification for her somewhat irrational desire to lose weight.

Like many woman, I honestly feel that if I could just stick to my eating plans and exercise regimes for longer, I would be this skinny, glamorous fashionista that I have long longed to be. Unfortunately, I have commitment issues, a hatred of tracksuits and a bit of a penchant for chocolate and cocktails; so I usually slip up, take a week off, and then start the same cycle all over again – a process which I think may have almost permanently screwed over my metabolism. But then I considered it: at which point would I ever feel skinny enough? Looking back at photographs of myself from my teenage years and first year at university, I see that I really was very slim indeed. Skinny, even. But at the time, it’s safe to say I didn’t feel it. At all. I wasn’t any happier then than I am now. Quite the opposite. This begs the question: will we ever be satisfied with the figures we’ve got? If I carry on the way I’m going, knowing me, the answer is probably not. It’s natural to be a little self-critical, but surely this is a little too far. We all have different attributes, and with the world of high-fashion suddenly re-embracing curves, I think it’s time we all (myself most definitely included) should learn to like our natural shapes. A fairly tall order for most, I realise, but one that’s long overdue. Aside from all this, I can’t help but wonder if being thin would actually solve as many problems as I have convinced myself it will? Again, probably not. Nevertheless, it’s far easier to recognise this distorted attitude than to change it.

Here’s a start though… relax a bit. The world won’t stop turning if I don’t lost those pesky three pounds. Sure, be good, that’s fine. Go on the occasional crash-diet if you absolutely must (although take my advice, it’s only a quick fix). Continue to have bikini aspirations if you like. Just don’t let it become an obsession. Because something tells me I’ll really be happier carrying that extra pound or two and free to indulge from time to time, no matter what the skinny little devils on my shoulder tell me. I’ll try to shake them off, but for right now, where’s my skinny cappuccino?