THE PUZZLE OF SWIMWEAR

In kindergarten, I craved a bikini almost as much as to be blonde.  Had Primark sold one with foam ‘breasts’, I’d have been thrilled.  Blame Barbie.

If you don’t believe bikini confidence is the apex of female achievement, read a gossip mag.  See a starlet condemned for that modern sin, cellulite (punishable by pricy unguent).  The message is clear: in swimwear, you enter a beauty contest.  Some love it.  Not me.  It’s small comfort this disquiet isn’t exclusive to me, nor even to women.  Remember David Cameron blaming Sam for his floral trunks?  Thus cleverly presenting them as evidence he was a ‘real man’ – too busy to fuss about clothes, his squaw fussing for him.

Like shares, trends in selective nudity go up as well as down, because swimwear reflects both fashion and attitudes to the body.  Fashion buffs claim bikinis were invented in war-torn 1940s, in a general moral loosening (and to save cloth).  But in fourth-century Sicilian villa, Piazza Armerina, mosaics depict maidens frolicking in bandeaus and undies as if auditioning for Baywatch.  Body-worshipping Romans adored beach babes as much as any Copacabana lech.  

As clothes evolved from togas, swimming togs receded until the Victorian  seaside boom.  Then, costumes mimicked ideal male and female forms, with men in longjohns, women clad neck to ankle, big skirts on top.  As women grew more active, all clothes shrank.  Witness the ever-skinnier 1960s’ ever-stringier bikinis.

Any Indian beach, where you’ll see women in everything from thongs to saris, illustrates that there is no single line on modesty today.  And Western swimwear offers distinctly confusing instructions about what shape to aspire to.  Busty women welcome the resurgent cutaway one-piece.  But 10,000 sit-ups couldn’t defeat this evil, peepshow garment, from which hip and back fat bulge like fleshy bubble wrap.  They suit only plump, bony women, i.e. Barbie.  But maybe these mixed body messages express muddled recession thinking – as we debate whether to fall on creature comforts, or get leaner, meaner.  Maybe next year swimwear will be more forgiving, necklines rising as shares plummet.  

In the meantime, to look sexy in swimwear, don’t stroll the prom in high heels.  You will fall.  Foam cups and built-in girdles can armour against indignity.   If you must wear a thong, wear it like a Brazilian i.e. with perfect peaches, or a German, i.e. with indifference to everyone else.  But until dimples are as coveted as in the nineteenth century, I’ll applaud you from my kaftan.

As seen in ES magazine

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MARRIAGE VERSUS BABIES?

It’s bad hearing you can’t have a baby.  Worse if, until that moment, you were far from certain that you wanted one.  And especially shocking if these discoveries hit after two long years’ striving to get pregnant.

As I learnt four months ago.  

An IVF specialist announced that, contrary to past advice, ‘it would be a miracle’ if my husband and I conceived naturally.  And I felt as if someone had stolen my innards, then dropped me through a trap door.  

Sebastian’s response was more cerebral.  ‘It’s like we’ve been given A-star in an exam, only to be told, sorry, you’re gamma minus.’  But he was no less upset.  Unsurprisingly, since this  baby lark was his idea.  Apparently, in this we’re an unusual couple.  Yet ambivalence about parenthood always seemed natural to me.

 For years he urged, ‘We’ve got to get on with it.’

‘Says who?’ said I, hoping he would reply, ‘Me.’  He didn’t, enabling me to discount the possibility that he truly wanted this.  

So the question – to breed or not to breed – lay between us, often mentioned, examined seldom.  I vaguely expected to wake one morning, ravenous with ‘baby hunger’, or suddenly go gooey, passing Baby Gap.  

But while I adore friends’ kids, that they go home is always a selling point.  As a tot, I detested baby dolls.  At 6, I vowed to enter a nunnery after channel-hopping into an Open University film, ‘the miracle of birth’.  Today, greeting neighbourhood mums with their prams of precious blossom, I’m not blind.  After initial exhaustion, most emit a rosy glow, as if possessed of an intoxicating secret, known only to a select group of two: a parent’s delirious love for its child.

Yet my primary feeling for these mothers isn’t envy but pity.  Primarily, for the awesome responsibility: to learn how much to give, how little to expect, and – hardest – how to let go. 

I didn’t take parenthood lightly, you see, but all too seriously.  It scared me.

What changed my mind?  Realising the ‘urge’ was as likely to strike me as lightning.  That my scepticism was logical, as part of the post-Princess Di generation, reared on the two Cs: contraception, and career.  But although my self-pleasing life would never grow less appealing, I might regret the lack of a son or daughter.  Ideally, I’d skip parenthood to be a grandmother of the grandest variety, available for tea at Claridge’s, trips to Venice, never nappies or knitting.  Sadly, this technology had yet to reach Harley Street.

And yes, the mournful eyes of my husband, as we spoke of our lovely nephews, nieces and godchildren, they got to me.  Having researched marriage for my latest book, I was aware that family studies all conclude a marriage withchildren is less happy than one without.  On the other hand, how could I deprive him?  More to the point: what if he stopped loving me and looked elsewhere?  Would that be so unreasonable? When we married I took a vow to honour him.  The deal was to put ‘us’ before ‘me’.  

And marriage experts all concur: a couple can recover from any breach of trust, if both want to.  But one form of incompatibility kills.  When couples aren’t signed up to the same life dream.

So maybe ‘us’ had room to expand into a bigger number, like three.

I flushed the pill, waited for my periods to return, only to wish they hadn’t.  And then feel relief.  Phew.  I could finish this book, start another, and oh, that play idea…  I made plans, lots.  None featured moses baskets.

18 months passed.  Sebastian suggested visiting the GP.  Referrals followed.  Humiliating investigations became second-nature (though never will I see a Star Wars light-sabre without shuddering).  Finally we learnt that we couldn’t breed after all.

Were we surprised?  Not really.  At thirty-five, an age women dread as the start of a sharp drop to menopause, I was amazed other doctors said I was hunky-dory, despite polycystic ovaries and decades of slack personal care.  As Sebastian is older than I, and a journalist, for him to emerge unscathed from his roué years seemed far-fetched.  No, the shock was how much I cared.

After a sleepless night’s sobbing, I started planning.  We’d hold our noses and yes, do the damned IVF.  Sebastian looked increasingly distressed.  And even as I spewed positive patter, I found myself contemplating the options that medicine offers.  Donors.  Wombs for hire.  Adoption.  

How far might our baby-quest take us?  Would we lose sight of the thing that always seemed more important to me than parenthood’s spurious immortality – the love that bore us for 14 happy years?

I learnt two things.  If I was to have a child, it could only be our child – his.  And I did want one, because I’d love it as I loved him.

A week later, we went to a private clinic for more tests.  

Guess what?  I was pregnant.  Naturally.

A week later, I returned to the NHS for a scan.  The embryo was at an awkward angle, but hard as she tried, the consultant found no heartbeat.  She “couldn’t say it was okay”, she said,  turning away, hunching her shoulders and adding, “I’m sorry”. 

I knew her well enough to know I was justified to cry.

I rang Sebastian.  He told me not to be pessimistic then we ate a ceremonial lunch and agreed the emotion was overwhelming.  Just a taste of parenthood’s highs and lows.  Did we want it?  Then I went to bed, started bleeding, and he kept saying don’t write the baby off.  At the week’s end we went together to the consultant.

“I’ve booked the emergency room,” she said.

“For the abortion?” I asked.  Watching hope fall from Sebastian’s face hurt more than the words.  

Out came the light sabre.  I couldn’t look at the monitor, or him.  

“Oh,” said the consultant.

“What?”

“Things have changed.”

“Can’t you see it?” said Sebastian.

“What?”

“The baby’s heartbeat.”

“I’m amazed.  And delighted,” said the consultant.

As are we.  

And scared.  And delighted, as our unborn daughter grows.  I pray the emotional see-saw keeps tilting until I die.  Preferably before him.  Definitely before her.

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WHY MARRIAGE STILL MATTERS

Once, unless you were rich, there was but one way to become a fully paid-up member of society: get hitched.  

Today marriage is a free choice.  Daddy can’t make you.  Employers don’t demand it.  The word ‘spinster’ has lost its sting, sex, its stigma, and nobody calls a lovechild a bastard.  So what’s the point of marriage?

It’s an obvious question.  Yet for me it misses the point.   Now marriage is no longer compulsory, and the roles of husband and wife have shed their starch, we have an opportunity to custom-fit the marital commitment, to suit ourselves as never before.  

Marriage is no more than a pledge.  To put ‘we’ before ‘I’, and face the future as a three-legged race conjoined by a tie called wedlock.  How you run the race is up to you.  But one fact never varies.  To exalt a relationship, call it a marriage, invites couples to ponder what they’re doing together.  The value of this is obvious, isn’t it?

This ancient ritual works psychological magic too.  For men, more than women, research finds, the very public step of re-labelling a partner ‘a spouse’ alters your feelings towards them and your self-image.  And married couples must also think hard before changing their mind, given the costs of splitting.

Marriage has been accused of many crimes, but can be convicted only of suiting a host of lifestyles.  History shows it can knot us into almost any social formation – nuclear, feudal, or pharaonic.  The custom survived for millennia not by being dated but flexible.  This elderly institution remains fresh because every couple strikes their own deal, so it’s always personal.  

However, the tug of tradition has weakened.  Asking her hand in marriage is no longer the ‘thing to do’ after you’ve run out of conversation.  Perhaps today’s couples need to be reminded why this leap of faith into the unknown is worth making. 

Well, there’s the vast evidence that married couples are richer, healthier, and their children thrive.  Not just because happy, healthy people marry.  To say ‘we’ is more important than ‘I’ has practical power.  After all, for society’s greatest rewards, long-term tactics are necessary.  With a spouse who has sworn to support you, it’s easier to take decisions that are difficult in the short run. To step back from a job, start a family, or further your education. Secure in the knowledge that one day you will do the same for your spouse. 

Married couples can find it easier to widen each others’ worlds and reap the benefits of shared meaning and memories. They’re also shored up by the respect society offers those who trouble to state, publicly, their relationship’s importance. And if the obstacle race works out, at the end, if they’re lucky, they approach the finish with somebody to remind them where they left their spare teeth.

But magic only works if you believe in it.   If you don’t simply work at marriage, but play at and relish it.  Studies find that the more optimistic your expectations, the greater your demands, the more marriage will give you.  

If you seek the best, keep noticing each other, complain well but criticise less, and don’t let leisure slide.  (Although husbands tend to enjoy more free time, according to latest research, wives’ pleasures have greater impact on whether a union is happy.)  Try a psychological trick called ‘positive-sentiment override’.  If your beloved snaps at you, don’t snap back or take it personally.  No, they’re having a bad day.

With care, luck and selective attention, the ball and chain can weigh lighter than ever.  

As seen and heard on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme

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THE ART OF MARRIAGE: out tomorrow

For anybody interested in why marriage is still with us, and how to navigate the three-legged race through life, my latest offering, THE ART OF MARRIAGE.  Threaded with insights from history, psychology and the latest research, and chock-full of stories from people who have done it for better — or worse.

Available at Amazon, Waterstone’s and all good retailers.

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THE LOVE IN FOOD

Only a spoilt fop like the Duke of Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night could imagine music is ‘the food of love’. Had he ever turned a spit, or sung for his supper, he would have realised that music may nourish romance, and possibly aid digestion, but without grub there is no love.

If food and love aren’t identical, they’re near as fraternal twins. As Cervantes remarked, ‘All sorrows are less with bread’. Food and love are bare necessities, but also have potential to be as troublesome as Adam and Eve’s apple, since both mediate pleasure and power in relationships. Spoon-feed a toddler and you’ll soon grasp that without love’s seasoning providing food can be hell.

It’s amazing how efficiently cooks’ feelings translate to the tastebuds. Eating in motorway service stations, who can ignore the whiff of a chef’s minimum wage-indifference? Similarly, I knew where I stood with a boyfriend’s mother after she fed me a black roast spud that had sat a week in her oven before its second Sunday lunch. Not coincidentally, the shelf was her preferred destination for me.

Whether you fancy oysters or asparagus, the aphrodisiac quality is about texture, form, as much as any chemical. But even culinary erotica has a childish core, because food’s love-purveying dimension derives ultimately from the cradle, and parents’ devotion to the egotists Colette called ‘happy, unconscious little vampires who drain the maternal heart’.  The solace babies find in milk is the nourishment we seek in comfort foods. Just read Nigel Slater, our foremost lyricist of the sideboard, on ‘creamy clouds of blissful mash’ – ‘the sort you want to bury your face in’.

Breaking bread was once the essence of companionship (‘com’ meant with, ‘pan’, bread). Now many dine alone, serenaded by a microwave’s ping. Our emotional contract with food is different if it’s made by machines.

Cheap, fat-laden foods are marketed as convenient little luxuries – a form of self-love epitomised in the ad with the woman gobbling chocolate in the bath. Go on, have another love, says the supermarket; this week it’s buy one, get one free. But eating disorders seem a logical response to spoil-yourself consumerism. To food available 24/7, that doesn’t tire in its preparation and makes blood sugar soar then plummet – making us fat, yet leaving us hungry. Without love, such food is antisocial, and very inconvenient.

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THE USES AND ABUSES OF WORRY

Ever lain awake, worries circling like vultures, plucking your nerves?  Then you’ll  know that night terrors rarely precipitate firm decisions or plans of action, but more often quaking bones, exhaustion and a sense of helplessness.  Never is worry so useless.

‘Feasting on maggots’, the Chinese phrase for nocturnal fretting, perfectly captures its futility and the nausea that results.  Interestingly, the earliest meaning of worry in old English was ‘to kill by compressing the throat’ (as dogs ‘worry’ sheep).  And it’s because worry can paralyse that hawks like Roosevelt and Francis Bacon warned that our greatest fear ought to be fear itself.  Even placid American poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson held, ‘Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.’  Still, it’s unwise to dismiss worry altogether.   

Winston Churchill dubbed his depressions the black dog, an apt metaphor for a mental state so clotted with dread.  But rather than dog us, worry can help to lead us where we need to go.  After all, our cares are our priorities, full of information, so contemplating them may further our goals.  Why not ask what lies behind your dread.  Is it fear of change or taking responsibility, of being abandoned or judged?  The next question is, does this fear keep you safe, as it may have once, when you were young?  Or does it stand between you and what you want?  

While deconstructing your fears, in meantime you could learn to care less with the Blyth just-in-time worrying system, which was inspired by contemporary retail.  Shops reduce their storage costs and prevent overstocking by having goods delivered at the last possible moment.  Likewise, you can economise on worry.  Just list problems as they occur to you, setting aside a regular slot (once or twice a week) to consider them, refusing to give angst free rein until you’re in a position to master it.  

Remember that fear is simply imagination.  It can be creative, and practical, if you let it.  Allow worry to stir up your synapses, walk you through your options, foreseeing their consequences, and you build an informed basis for action.  Worry about someone else – better still, imagine their predicament from their point of view – and you exercise the priceless skill of mind-reading, which made Homo sapiens the king of the jungle, and laid the foundations of society.

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BAD HABITS, DIRTY SECRETS — AND HOW TO CHANGE

So what’s yours?  Pocket billiards?  Nail-biting like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or the odd sly pick of the nose?  But perhaps you prefer to keep these matters private.  Perhaps you’d slap an ASBO on anyone you saw indulge in your pet vice.  Even if, from time to time, in a traffic jam, you indulge in public too.

Hypocrisy is the usual stance towards bad habits, and denial what differentiates the bad from the benign.  I’m talking about those traits that advance our cause not a jot, yet which we cling to, either as tokens of our personality (‘I smoke; I break rules; ergo, I’m interesting’ was once my mantra) or because they scratch an itch nothing else can reach (e.g. annoying your wife).  In other words, it’s not just filthy nitpicking, or inconvenient foibles, like an addiction to artisan choc, that fall into the category of bad habits, but also more general character failings, such as always being late or never doing your share of chores.

But let’s suppose it’s possible – if only in private – to accept a habit is bad.  How might you get rid of it?  First, you’d need to accept that the less thought you gave it, the more it mattered to you.  As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point, character is less a fixed set of traits than a bundle of ‘tendencies’ dependent ‘on circumstance’.  Hence if most people ‘seem to have a consistent character’, it’s only because ‘most of us are really good at controlling our environment’.  So habits are customs, described by Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon as ‘the principal magistrate of man’s life’.  A form of personal habitat, they help to keep life predictable, keeping at bay the chaos outside ourselves.  As a result, habits that reassure us can become problematic when they invade others’ territory (e.g. annoy a wife).  

You might find it easier mend your ways if you accepted your guilty pleasure is fun only for one, and a poor spectator sport.  Particularly if the boyfriend who hates you scratching then begins – to your mutual irritation – scratching himself.  (Did I mention that habits are contagious, since primates mirror each other’s behaviour?)  But to quit a vice outright creates a dangerous vacancy.  Which is why I commend the Renaissance monk Erasmus’s solution: ‘A nail is driven out by another nail.  Habit is overcome by habit.’  So stop nibbling, Gordon, and start painting those nails instead.  Soon you may have time enough on your hands.

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WHO BELONGS IN YOUR FAMILY?

Who are your family?  If you think the answer’s obvious, you may groan at reports that Pete Docter, director of Up, dedicated his Oscar to ‘the Pixar family’ and his wife and kids.  I groaned, then checked my fattest dictionary, and found this cheesy phrase couldn’t be more accurate.  The word hails from Latin’s ‘familia’, meaning ‘household’ and all in it (‘famulus’ was a ‘servant’).  Thus childless Samuel Pepys’s ‘family’ included his maids, but if his hands roamed as they dressed him, he was the right side of incest.  Just.

The idea that family can be custom-fit from any old bits may not be modern, but has gained urgency with rising divorce, and animates Pixar’s greatest films, especially Up.  This tale of a grouch restored to life by a boyscout, bird and dog salted my popcorn with tears because I’ve always believed that family bonds are inked in empathy first, blood second. Empathy led my parents to adopt a third daughter, and empathy held us fast when she unveiled the temper of a Tasmanian devil.  Today this once-damaged tot is an adoring mother whose sons have undammed unsuspected reserves of love in us all.

To make a family, via chromosomes, adoption, or ready-made people in your world, is always creative.  But how to tell who belongs?  Those friends whom I rebuke, not cold-shoulder, when they offend me, I consider sisters.   By contrast, my pal says he’d happily donate a kidney to a sister who didn’t invite him to her 30th birthday (in the next-door street) but he’d never ask her to dinner.  Yet if my friend-sisters required a kidney, what would I say? What if my sisters need it?

One thing is clear: family is the forcing house of identity, and at Christmas, as they goad us into acting as we did in our teens, we remember why we left. Yet if the lessons that family teach about our character can be painful, they’re worth mastering and applying elsewhere, preferably with the empathy afforded to nearest and dearest.  Intriguing research has found the happiest people don’t take home the principles they’ve learnt at work, but vice versa.  Treating your baby as a project is a pattern for woe, whereas managing a boss as you do your tantrumella toddler/husband is highly effective.  So whoever tends your hearth, root your heart at home and everything is easier.

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A QUESTION OF STYLE

In my teens I believed fashion was about following herds, and style about rising above them.   As that superannuated teenager, Quentin Crisp, put it, ‘Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.’   My ‘look’ was lots of black, the odd army surplus shirt, and eye make-up like  Zorro’s mask.  I thought it individual, until I went to the Glastonbury Music Festival and met an army of identikit indie snobs.  

Few dress with huge originality, and it would be exhausting if we did.  Clothes are visual autobiographies, their job not only to keep us warm but to tell the world how to handle us.  Hence many societies had sumptuary laws, restricting certain clothes to certain persons, ensuring everybody knew their place.  But fashion’s haters shouldn’t imagine that Vogue took over where laws left off.  Fashion is not style’s enemy or arbiter, but a resource.  Style is what we do with it.  

Coco Chanel said, ‘Fashion fades, only style remains the same.’  Certainly, many women stick to the same hairstyle – often from their happiest period – as if by Elnett alone, they can halt time.  Take Pauline Prescott’s crash-helmet (circa 1986 or whenever John began his rise to power).  But style must evolve, with our needs and ageing bodies.  The one transcendent element in all successful styles is they suit their creator’s purpose.  

What does style look like?  Nobody would hesitate to call Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, chic, but her chief stylist, frizzy Grace Coddington, could be taken for a cleaner.  Yet Wintour admits she has none of Coddington’s style ‘genius’.  Yes, her baggy black attire is light years from her stunning images, but it’s as effective as a cloak of invisibility, freeing her to feast her eyes on the world and decide how it could look prettier, and sparing long hours that Wintour spends under hairdryers.  So both women’s style works for them.  Both are stylish.  

To find your style, look not to Vogue but yourself.  An eye for image helps, and a feel for the signals that clothes send.  For a distinctive style, the message should seem consistent – the quality that makes a novelist’s voice or Van Gogh’s convulsive colours so recognisable.  But your look can change daily and be stylish.  However hard you work it, the key is to be happy in it.  As Epictetus advised , ‘Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.’

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Baby talk

This from Libby:

I enjoyed the following conversation with my 2 or 3 (?) year old son while driving in the car. As the driver – and therefore unable to keep eye contact and body language – I was speaking with him relying only on words, like a telephone call.

My clever boy was engrossed in an activity that required a lot of his attention. I was doing my best to verbally guide his activity as we drove along the road.

“Keep trying” I encouraged. “Concentrate,” I said.

“I am, Mum” he replied. “I’m conc-ing and trate-ing”.

Bless his Heart

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