You are what you eat

Whilst waiting for the special ‘feminist edition’ of Bookslam, featuring Hadley Freeman and Caitlin Moran, I read this article in the Standard about Mimi Spencer, author of the 5:2 fasting diet – and also, it’s worth noting, the Standard’s fashion editor – about how her diet’s revolutionised her life. Not only has she dropped two dress sizes from a perfectly healthy size 12 to a skinny size 8 as a result of radically cutting down her eating two days out of seven, she’s also clearly rolling in cash, as her recent holiday to Madagascar is held up to prove.

The timing of my reading the article was ironic, given that both Hadley and Caitlin would soon after read passages from their new books that were chosen specifically to demonstrate that women shouldn’t feel they have to look, feel or act a certain way in order to be a success. Both women would talk about the objectification and suppression of women not only by men but also by the ever-burgeoning women’s magazine market and even their own bodies (Caitlin sharing some particularly graphic details of her first menstruation, and commenting that it was no wonder women struggled to wave the feminist flag before the advent of sanitary products when they were forced to spend vast swathes of their time washing blood-soaked knickers – a fair point).

Whilst many converts of the 5:2 diet will no doubt jump to Mimi Spencer’s defence, it’s hard (for me at least, and I speak as a woman whose love of food cannot be overstated) to imagine really being bothered enough to change your entire lifestyle for the sake of dropping a couple of dress sizes. Take going out for dinner as an example. Does being on the 5:2 diet make it necessary to rearrange every social occasion to fit in with which days you’re starving yourself and which you’re not? Or do you just sip water as your friends devour delicious morsels of tapas washed down with red wine?

But it’s not the 5:2 diet specifically I wish to criticise in this post, it’s more the point that Hadley and Caitlin were getting at; that women should be able to be who they are, without feeling the constant pressure to be thinner, prettier, better in every way. Why shouldn’t we eat what we want, when we want, as long as we appreciate the fundamentals of a balanced diet and a balanced life? Why should we starve ourselves two days each week because the women’s magazines tell us it will make us happier? How can cake deprivation make anyone happier, EVER?

My opinion, for what little it’s worth, is that life’s too short for fad diets. Of course we should eat healthily, but there are limits, and starving for two days a week must surely be one of them? I know proponents of the 5:2 will wax lyrical at this stage about the many health benefits of the diet (concentration allegedly being one of them – now I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d be able to concentrate all that well after eating half a carrot and a dry Ryvita for my lunch), but in case they hadn’t noticed there are also rather a lot of health benefits to the ‘everything in moderation’ approach – not least to our mental wellbeing.

I’ll close with an apt quote from G.K Chesterton, who had some sage words on health:

“The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.”

Quite – now pass the Dairy Milk.

Slightly hypocritical of me to post an article slagging off fad diets whilst commencing a wheat and gluten free period, but my dear friend Sian (who attended Bookslam with me last night) assures me it will revolutionise my life. And, er, make me look better…Oh.

Want to be a columnist? Then read this.

It’s difficult to sit in a room with Guardian columnist and features writer Hadley Freeman, author of the soon to be published ‘Be Awesome,’ without feeling somewhat inferior. Hadley is, after all, what so many women – and men – of her generation aspire to be; a celebrated writer. But one thing Hadley is not is intimidating; in fact she’s both naturally funny and utterly charming, which makes it impossible to dislike her. Is there anything this American in London can’t do?

The event Hadley is speaking at is the Guardian Masterclass on column writing. She begins by telling the audience how she got into writing for a newspaper. Her “pushy Jewish mother” entered her in a competition whilst she was at university which, unbeknownst to her, she went on to win. Her mother duly collected her award and she was none the wiser, until an editor spotted her writing and approached her – and the rest, as they say, is history.

What would Hadley’s top tips be to succeed in column writing? Firstly, she says, write as widely as possible. Be funny if you can, and write for yourself rather than your audience. Don’t feel locked in by your voice; change it as appropriate, for example when writing about something outside of your comfort zone. Don’t feel pressure to always write news-reactive copy. Be careful how much of yourself you reveal to the reader. And, above all else, only write what you feel strongly about – if you don’t care then why should the reader?

After imparting her words of wisdom Hadley dashes off home (to write a feature, she tells us, somewhat appropriately). Replacing her at the front of the room is Michael Hodges, who writes for Time Out magazine. His advice to aspiring columnists is to be forceful and willing not only to be knocked back but also to write about things you don’t necessarily want to write about. He stresses the importance of being concise (“cut, cut, cut,” he says, “like sharpening a sword. It’s always better afterwards.”)

Michael’s style of journalism differs from Hadley’s, he says, because he waits for things to happen rather than seeking them out. He believes that “the weird is in the every day,” and that “there’s nothing more rewarding than observing your fellow human beings.” Ultimately, he says, it comes down to discipline. If you practice anything let it be producing clean copy that is well paced and holds the reader’s attention.

After the break Guardian columnist Marina Hyde takes to the stage. Marina has such presence that she wins over the audience immediately. Her chatty style, relaxed demeanour and her ability to laugh at herself make her approachable and real. She begins by warning the audience against using the word “I” – “know the rules before you break them,” she says, giving the example of Caitlin Moran as someone who has earned the right to use the word.

Comments, Marina says, should be largely ignored. And she agrees with Michael that being concise is vital: “If you can’t say what you want to say in 750 words you’re going wrong.” The best things she has written were completed in under an hour; the worst took three or more. “Sometimes I put the brakes on the word count and accept it’s a piece that has to go stillborn into the world,” she says, to laughs from the crowd.

Always be honest when you make a mistake, says Marina. And don’t assume that even if you put links in your stories people will know what you are referring to, because, she says, “It’s courtesy to explain.” Keep anger out of your writing because “it makes people switch off.” Be careful of your tone, and always try to get a joke in early to win over your audience. It’s also important to be able to write about a broad range of subjects, she says – and if anyone’s got that down to a fine art it’s Marina herself, writing three columns each week on completely different themes.

Marina closes with one final piece of advice: “Be someone people want to have a pint with.” Looking around the room it’s clear she’s easily achieved that goal.