Social Progress in the Digital Age: Why it’s time to step away from social media

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Photo credit: TaylorHerring via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Confined to the cosy bubbles of our online worlds, it can be difficult to understand when elections and referendums fail to deliver the results that we expect. When Brexit was announced I, like everyone I know, was shocked by the result, not only because leaving the EU wasn’t the result that I had personally called for, but because I didn’t know anyone who had voted to leave. Likewise, whilst I was aware in the lead up to this year’s general election that there remained across the country a great deal of support for the Conservatives, at no point did I consider that a Tory/DUP coalition was a possible outcome. What I hadn’t considered up until recently is how sheltered from reality I’ve been.

When I first joined Facebook many moons ago, there was no such thing as a news feed algorithm. It used to be the case that I would come across all kinds of posts in my daily feed. Some were interesting and instantly engaging, some boring, and some downright offensive. Regardless of whether or not the content was relevant or interesting to me personally, it was very likely that I would see whatever my friends and acquaintances were sharing. These days it can take days for the annoying YouTube video that someone posted at the weekend to appear in my news feed. And in some cases content remains completely hidden.

In a way this is pretty clever and useful. It means that when I scroll through Facebook I’m more often than not presented with news items and features that are of interest to me and that I’m likely to engage with in a meaningful way. But when it comes to the way that we engage with politics and current affairs, is it really that helpful for information to be restricted?

These days it’s extremely rare that I come across any content which opposes my personal belief system. What I find disconcerting is that if I’m receiving very little in the way of opposing viewpoints, then the same goes for those who think and feel differently from me. Whilst it’s easy to feel as though our social media algorithms are working in our favour to protect us from annoying/anger-inducing bullshit, I can’t help wondering if restricting information that is assumed to not be useful to us also hinders the way that we’re able to engage with and learn from our fellow citizens.

When it comes to the way that we engage with politics and current affairs, is it really that helpful for information to be restricted?

With more and more people turning to social media to access news and opinion, and with so much unreliable information floating around, it’s a shame that only certain types of stories are reaching certain individuals. If the only articles that we’re immediately presented with in our social media feeds sit cosily within our existing interests and beliefs, then how are we meant to connect with ‘the other side’ so to speak, and find a common ground from which to tackle the issues that are keeping us divided?

In a country characterised by polemic view points and a biased media system hell bent on fuelling the fire, it’s important that we make an effort to connect with one another and try to understand the other side of the proverbial coin. Rather than dedicating so much time and energy to voicing our opinions on social media, where only like-minded individuals are likely to gain exposure, perhaps it’s time to step away from our screens and start talking to one another in the real world.

Social progress depends upon how well we connect with and understand the people around us, and social media no longer offers a platform for this kind of engagement. So, speak with your neighbours, start conversations on the bus and in the street, and remember that we can be far more united and connected in the offline world than social networks and their algorithms will ever allow for.

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Does my Bum Look… Fashionable in This?

Photo credit: Liam Wilde via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: Liam Wilde via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but after many years of skinny ruling the roost in the fashion world, curvy is now creeping into the spotlight. And in many ways this is great. Having experienced being both at various stages of my life I’m the first person to advocate the respect and admiration of all body types. But wonderful and necessary as this growing appreciation for curvy is I can’t help thinking it’s a bit weird that body types, or anything to do with our bodies (don’t get me started on the bushy eyebrow thing!), can be ‘in fashion’ in the first place.

Being a fairly comfortable size 12 today, people are often surprised when I tell them that when I was 15 years old I weighed 15 stone. And, being pretty happy (mostly) with the way I am now, it’s disturbing for me to think about how much I hated my body back then. On boiling hot summer days I’d be covered from head to toe in black, not an inch of flesh visible besides my hands and face. Not even when I was sweating profusely would I feel confident enough to remove a few layers to cool myself down. Back then I would rather have jumped into a pit of spiders (my biggest fear) than show my legs or arms to anyone.

So, being fat was a pretty traumatic and uncomfortable experience for me when I was growing up. And despite being desperate to lose weight it wasn’t until years later that I started to shed the pounds and finally feel confident enough to expose certain parts of my body in public. Contrary to my expectation, though, losing weight didn’t eliminate all of my insecurities. Yes, I found clothes shopping easier and more enjoyable, and walking was more comfortable without my legs rubbing together. But I still had the same fear of showing my fully naked body (an insecurity which prevented me from losing my virginity until I was 22), and I still felt that I was less attractive than my friends. I thought that being slim would solve all of  my body issues. Little did I know they would never fully go away.

The biggest expectation I had at the time, though, was that if I lost weight I would be more attractive and sexually desirable. And I was right. I was. This was made clear by the sudden increase in attention that I started to receive. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the barrage of unwanted attention from strangers that being slim would also bring.

At one stage after dropping from a size 18-20 to a curvy 12-14, I actually found myself wishing I could put the weight back on so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the sleazy ogling that I increasingly found myself subject to. From walking down the street to standing at the bar waiting to be served, everywhere I went there was a creepy man either staring or making an uninvited comment about my body. Ever since I can remember the idea that’s been sold to me in magazines, in films and on TV is that slim people are happier, more attractive, and more successful than those who are not. At no point did I ever consider that being slim would make me feel anything other than beautiful and sexy. What actually happened was that I found myself feeling hugely self-conscious, aware that I was being looked at more frequently by a broader range of people, including other women, and not always in a respectful way. Of course, depending on who was looking, this attention was sometimes enjoyable. But for the most part it simply made me feel uncomfortable, anxious, and sometimes even frightened. This really wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

I thought that being slim would solve all of  my body issues. Little did I know, they would never fully go away.

Needless to say, any notions I’d once had about being happier if I lost weight quickly went out the window as I came to understand that being slim and being fat can both be problematic, although for different reasons. Being an insecure size 18-20 had protected me from a huge amount of the objectification that I came to despise when I was slim. But until I lost weight I had no idea how chronically invisible I’d been when I was bigger.

However, being someone who always feels slightly inadequate regardless of how big or small I am, I’ve come to realise that the invisibility I experienced wasn’t solely caused by other people’s judgements. I didn’t feel beautiful or sexy as a size 18-20 and so I covered my body and shrank into myself. Whilst I can’t deny that the images of tall, slinky women that I was bombarded with in the media didn’t encourage me to feel good about myself, I know now that most of what I felt about my body came as a result of my own preconceptions about beauty. I decided that I was ugly compared to everyone around me and this insecurity is what I projected to the outside world. I have met many women throughout my life who, although being what may be considered overweight, exude a level of confidence and self-acceptance that I can only dream of, even now as a size 12. And, conversely, I’ve also met many women who are slim who suffer with crippling insecurities about their appearance.

The body positive movement is a great step towards helping people to love their bodies regardless of size or shape. But as helpful and positive as it is are we still allowing external factors to dictate how feel about ourselves?

Regardless of the feminist campaign for body positivity, the success of the fashion industry relies on insecurity and it will always seek to make us feel bad about ourselves in one way or another. So whilst curves are finally receiving the appreciation they deserve this doesn’t mean that all of the lumps and bumps that tend to come along with being voluptuous will be viewed in a positive light, or that curves will be portrayed in the media any more respectfully and realistically than other body types have been. I can’t speak for everyone, but my curvy body has been far more sexualized and objectified than it has been respected.

It may be the case that the fashion industry is starting to appreciate diversity, and encourage the acceptance of fat bodies. But regardless of how ‘fashionable’ any body type is, insecurities can materialise as a result of many different experiences. What I’ve come to understand through my own journey is that self-acceptance is the key to confidence and contentment. Without finding validation and love inside of ourselves the respect we deserve from society will always be something that we’re fighting for. In the words of Gertrude Keazor – one of the wisest women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my adult life –  ‘As we embody from within, so the outside world will adjust.’

To Binge, or Not to Binge?

To Binge or not to Binge
Photo credit: lintmachine via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Like many British millennials, the best part of my teenage years were spent in dingy bedrooms and sweaty nightclubs listening to music that my parents didn’t understand, and drinking as much cheap alcohol as I could lay my hands on. From the age of 14 going right up until I started studying at university in my mid-twenties, pretty much all of my weekends (and even some weeknights) were dedicated to getting drunk. And for a fair few years this proved a pretty fun and carefree pastime. In fact, nothing will ever quite compare to the contentment I used to feel on those lazy post-binge days when I’d spend hours snuggled up with my mates in blankets, drinking tea, eating dirty pizza, and watching endless crap on TV. The hangovers we endured weren’t pretty, of course, but the sense of comfort and belonging that we found in each other’s company made the pain and the sickness feel totally worthwhile.

With alcohol having been such a big part of my life throughout my early adolescence, I can’t help thinking now about why I was so drawn to drinking in the first place. As someone who’s always felt uncomfortable socialising in big groups, maintaining friendships and forging new ones has always been a slightly tricky affair. One of the benefits of drinking alcohol when I was growing up was that it gave me the confidence, albeit fleeting, to talk to people and let loose on the dance floor without feeling self-conscious. Getting drunk was also useful when it came to becoming sexually active, endowing me with the courage to  flirt and have sex without feeling embarrassed or ashamed of my body. Meeting friends at the pub after a busy shift at work was something to look forward to, and the ritual of going out on a Friday  or Saturday night helped to make the responsibilities of adult life feel a little less difficult and serious.

Thinking about all of the fun times I had and great friends I made throughout my heavy drinking days, it’s easy to look back on my teenage years with fondness and nostalgia. But ignoring the dark times just wouldn’t be honest.

And dark times there certainly were.

Immediately springing to mind is the time that I gave myself alcohol poisoning after drinking six cans of Special Brew (more commonly seen in the hands of homeless alcoholics) and spent the whole week afterwards feeling like my insides were being squeezed through a mangle, convinced that I’d eaten a dodgy kebab. Coming in at number one in the regretful memory charts, though, is the night that I drank so much cider that I ended up passed out in the street after leaving my friends at a party and had to be chaperoned to my doorstep by the police. Bragging to my friends the following day about how I’d been sick out of the police car window  on the way home proved pretty funny at the time. But looking back I can only cringe with embarrassment at the thought of how inebriated I must have been.

The ritual of going out on a Friday  or Saturday night helped to make the responsibilities of adult life seem a little less difficult and serious.

For years my weekends were spent binging on whatever booze I could afford – from cheap white cider in the early days, to wine and gin more recently – and not without consequence to my mental and physical health. As well as suffering from recurring kidney infections and bouts of depression and anxiety throughout my twenties, in 2012 I was diagnosed with thyroid disease – a common condition that has links to alcohol abuse (Forefront Health), and one that has seriously affected my overall health and self-esteem. Of course, there’s no way of knowing if I would have developed the condition if I’d drank less or abstained from alcohol altogether, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering if it’s something that could have been avoided.

Health issues aside, though, the other problem I’m faced with now as someone who’s chosen to cut heavy drinking out of my life as much as possible is alienation from certain social activities and a general feeling of impending doom in most, if not all, social gatherings. I can recall many birthday parties, festivals, and events that I’ve taken great pains to avoid over the last few years, not because I don’t want to spend time with my friends or let my hair down, but because it’s no fun being the only sober person at the party, especially when chronic introversion is involved.

Thinking about my personal experience, it’s easy to understand why so many people continue to go out and get pissed even when they don’t really want to. Drinking alcohol and getting drunk is such a big part of British culture and so vital to so much of our social behaviour that choosing not to do it can make you feel pretty boring, not to mention awkward making conversation without that all important dose of Dutch courage. In my case, abandoning heavy drinking has led to me losing a large part of my social life, either due to growing bored with drunken conversation and behaviour, or losing interest in activities that are only really fun when drinking’s involved. Friday night down the pub springs to mind as one example.

However, as much as cutting down on booze has had what often feels like a negative impact on my social life, and caused me to feel like an outsider in my own friendship group at times, I have no desire to go back to how I was. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed my fair share of booze-fuelled bonding sessions. I’ve had many of these, and I shall remember them fondly. But as useful as alcohol has been for breaking down social barriers and helping me to get to know people more intimately, I strongly believe that true friends and dedicated lovers will always make an effort to put the hard work in, regardless of any awkwardness that sobriety may bring.

I can’t deny that some of the best experiences of my life have involved either getting drunk or being hungover with people that I love and care deeply about. But for all the spectacular parties I’ve been to and all the amazing people I’ve met over the years, feeling safe, physically healthy, and stable in my mind is worth far more to me now than any fun night out.