My First Cervical Screening

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Cervical screening, smear test, pap smear, whatever you want to call it, if you have a cervix they’re important to have done. If you don’t already know, cervical screenings are a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix, enabling you to get them removed and often prevent cervical cancer. In the UK, they’re offered to all women aged 25 and beyond who are registered with a GP, and between ages 25 and 49 you need to have them done once every three years.

Cervical screenings themselves don’t actually detect cancer, but they do detect the abnormal cells that could later develop into cancer, enabling them to be swiftly removed with no harm done. According to the NHS, since the screening programme was introduced in the 1980s, the number of cases of cervical cancer per year has decreased by about 7% - clearly it’s something worth doing!

And yet, they have a pretty bad rap – it’s only been in the past couple of years or so, when people in my social circles have started to become more open and passionate about promoting regular screenings, that I’ve actually started to hear anything ‘positive’. Prior to that, it was all horror stories and tales of discomfort and awkwardness and embarrassment over having another person shove a plastic duckbill up your junk.

I must admit, although I preach booking in for screenings and looking after your vagina, cervix and everything else in that vicinity, I’m a bit of a hypocrite because I was first invited for a screening about a year ago. I didn’t avoid going out of fear or embarrassment, rather I was convinced that working full time and based on previous experience, I wouldn’t be able to get an appointment that I could actually go to at my GP, so I just kept putting it off. Much to my surprise, when I finally bit the bullet and rang up last week, they gave me a 7:30pm appointment just over a week later! So, I went for my screening.

The nurse was very open and honest, and made me feel perfectly at ease. She verified that I was on the implant (I am), asked when my last period was (it’s been irregular lately, I’ve had two in the space of a month and a half) and asked if I was aware of any possibility of pregnancy (I hope not). After that, she explained the process. Essentially, all the nurse does is lube up a speculum (a plastic device that slides in and can be opened slightly to widen the vagina and enable them to insert the brush), sticks it in, opens it, inserts the brush used to collect the samples, and once the cervix is found a quick sample is taken and you’re done. She didn’t mince words and warned up front that it doesn’t feel pleasant, but that I was under no obligation to power through it if I was really uncomfortable. She maintained that it was important that, especially as it was my first experience, I wasn’t horrified into not coming back again for my future screenings and needed to leave the surgery feeling comfortable and confident in coming back again.

I was already wearing an easy-access dress, so all I had to do was kick off my shoes, take off my underwear and hop onto the bed. Don’t do what I did and whip your legs open there and then – apparently the proper position is feet together but knees apart and relaxed, and I have no boundaries… But, once I was comfortable, she talked me through each step.

First she applied lubricant to the speculum, which isn’t really all that intimidating looking if you’re already sexually active and use penetrative toys, but maybe that’s just me. She let me know exactly when she was inserting it, and really the only major discomfort was when she opened it. That was probably the worst part of the whole experience, and even then it was only grimace-inducing discomfort and not something that I was desperate to recoil from.

Next, she inserted the brush. Contrary to what people suggest, you aren’t literally scraped with some horrible metal scraping device – it’s just a little soft, rubbery brush and it’s rubbed gently along the wall of the cervix. This was the part she warned me could take a bit longer and potentially be quite uncomfortable, because it all depends on how easy it is to find your cervix. It was an odd sensation, but I wouldn’t say it was awful. We chatted about it briefly afterwards and both agreed that it just felt off and not-quite-right as opposed to outright unpleasant. In any case, if there are no other positive things to be said about me, I at least have an easy-to-find cervix and the entire physical procedure of my cervical screening was over in probably under two minutes altogether, if that!

After that, I just popped my pants and shoes back on and went on my merry way. The results will take about two to four weeks and are sent to my house directly; if there are any abnormalities, they will invite me to another appointment at a hospital to investigate further within ten days of receiving the letter. Because it’s a preventative measure that might save a life, they’re pretty hot on getting people in as quickly as possible. If I do have to attend an appointment like that and confirm abnormal cells, they laser them there and then, and then I’d have to go back for another look later, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

When I got back home, I did notice some bleeding, but this is apparently not uncommon and I expect it may be in part due to my irregular periods the past couple of cycles and the fact that I could be due for mine literally today.

All in all, the experience really wasn’t as intimidating or awkward as we can be made to believe, or as we make ourselves believe from overthinking. Provided that your nurse or doctor is warm and professional, you shouldn’t have a problem and the procedure itself is extremely quick in spite of the discomfort.

In England during 2014-2015, 6.4% of the 3,073,833 of those screened showed some kind of abnormality*. Not all of those may have been or develop into something dangerous, and 6.4% may not seem like a lot, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I could be in that percentage, or my friends could, or my family could. In 2014 in the UK, around 9 people were diagnosed with cervical cancer every day, and cervical screenings – however awkward they may feel – are there to prevent that from happening.

If you’ve been putting off booking your cervical screening, I encourage you to bite the bullet and do it. It’s really nothing to be afraid of, and it’s an important procedure to look after your physical health and protect you from serious illnesses later on down the line. You can book yourself in for a screening by contacting your GP, and you can find out more information about cervical screenings in the UK on the NHS website.

* Statistics from Cervical Screening Programme for England, Statistics 2014-15

Why I Don't Like Diets

Monday, 17 April 2017

Like every other year, January was filled with diet-talk a-plenty and the past couple of months have been filled with people getting ‘bikini body ready’ and doing ‘summer shreds’, but one thing that I never really expected to see was, well, criticism of people criticising diets. Maybe I just wrapped myself up too well in my body positive bubble, but I had thought for some time that most people were in agreement that diets weren’t a good thing and that we should be challenging the system that promotes them.

Quick disclaimer though, when I say ‘diet’ here, I’m obviously (I hope) not referring to people who simply talk about what they eat – I talk about my diet in terms of the food I eat all the damn time on my blog because I’m vegan and that’s part of what I blog about. Other people may talk about their diets a lot out of necessity or to spread awareness because they’re gluten intolerant, because they’re recovering from an eating disorder, because they’ve got a bowel disorder, whatever. What I do mean here when I use the word ‘diet’ is dieting, overthinking, obsessing, restricting, eating in unusual, unhealthy etc. ways strictly for weight loss.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against health and fitness, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that dieting and healthy living are one in the same – they’re not. There’s nothing healthy about this kind of diet culture at all; it’s an industry designed to foster insecurity, to tell us that we always need to be a little bit slimmer and have to spend our money to achieve it. After the holiday festivities of December, in January we’re bombarded by ads for weight loss products and programmes, sold a future of being happy and beautiful if only we can drop a few pounds.  Then there’s a brief lull, before the pressure starts all over again to be fit and skinny for summer, so that we can look ‘good’ in a bikini.

If you want to start eating better and getting fitter and living a healthier life then that’s cool and I’ll always support people in their goals to live well! I did much the same thing a couple of years ago now, and I haven’t looked back. Making healthier lifestyle changes is a hugely positive step to take and can have a dramatic impact on your mental and physical health, and a changing body can also be a side effect of that. The difference between that and dieting though, is that one is a simple, healthy lifestyle change. A resolve to eat a lil’ healthier, get a bit more exercise, to treat your body better. The other, however, is an industry that encourages calorie restriction, guilt, excessive exercise, self-hate, shame, disordered eating and anxiety over numbers on a scale that, in reality, are little to no indication of your health or, yes, even your size.  They don’t care about your health or happiness, they just want your money.

A lot of folks try to argue that there are benefits to these types of ‘dieting’ but, come on, when you so much as look up the dictionary definition it’s all about pure and simple restriction with the purpose of weight loss. Look up synonyms and you see things like eat sparingly, eat selectively, abstain, fast. There’s nothing wrong with altering what you eat and how you live for the sake of your physical health, but ‘diets’ and the restriction that they promote simply aren’t healthy. What most fail to realise through no fault of their own, is that restriction not only often ultimately leads to failure when trying to lose weight, but also poisons our relationships with food in a long-lasting, dangerous way.

I can understand why people who have resolved to go on a diet might be frustrated by all of the criticism flying around; those of us who are against dieting can be quite vocal about it and it’s easy to see why some might take it personally. It’s a criticism of a choice you’ve made for yourself, so it’s bound to rub you the wrong way. That said, at most a dieting person is annoyed and feels awkward and a bit singled out. Diet talk and promotion of dieting on the other hand is incredibly toxic for those around you, and upholds the damaging status quo that we should all be aspiring to weight loss, that success comes with weight loss, that happiness is attributed to weight and that the food we eat is an indicator of our morality (i.e. ‘being good’ vs ‘being bad’ depending on food choices).

 Diet talk and bikini body seasons are dangerous times for people who already struggle with food and body image, and we’re all already inescapably subjected to weight loss ads and encouragement to diet simply from the media that we have no choice but to consume – we don’t need it from all sides in the office, online community and social circles we surround ourselves with too.

When people say ‘I don’t care about your diet’ or criticise diet culture, it isn’t necessarily intended as an attack on those who wish to lose weight. It’s an attack on the industry that teaches us that our worth is measured by the size of our waistlines, and that being skinny should be a goal we all aspire to regardless of the costs. It’s an attack on the industry that is responsible for and continues to promote eating disorders and other mental health issues associated with body image. Hell, on the day that I first sat down to write this months ago, a so-called ‘body positive’ model and ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) had been criticised for using her platform to promote her restrictive weight loss and exercise plan for crying out loud.  (She has since apologised and taken it down, I believe, but come on!)

If you want to get fit, to eat better, then do it!  It’s an intensely complicated subject, but a desire to change your body or to get fit doesn’t mean you don’t or can’t love yourself as you are.  There isn’t necessarily any shame in wanting to change your body (although the dream would certainly be to live in a society where everyone is comfortable and happy in their own skins as they are). But, if you’ve decided to try and lose weight, you also need to be critical of why that is and to remember that if your end goal is to simply look thinner, it can’t really be just for yourself.

A desire to be slimmer does not and simply cannot exist in a vacuum – it’s the product of a society that pushes thinness and beauty on us from such a young age that children as young as three are now known to be affected by body image issues. A wish to exclusively lose weight (not to get fit, to get healthy, to eat better, to get stronger, to get better at running, to take up a sport etc. – just to lose weight, to get smaller, to be thinner) can never just be our own because our aspirations to be smaller are intrinsically linked to the messages our society feeds us associating thinness with being ‘better’.  These messages can be as obvious as fatphobic advertising or as insidious and subtle as the sea of super slim bodies that dominate our screens.  They tell us, in no uncertain terms, that to be thin is to be happier, more beautiful, more successful, more intelligent, more worthy of being loved, more able to love ourselves.

I don’t like and will never support diets because messages like those should be challenged, not inadvertently promoted.

If you’ve chosen to make weight loss a goal, please take care of yourself. Don’t listen to the diet talk and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated into thinking that you are only worthy of taking up space if you manage to shed a few kilos. Don’t over-exercise or listen to the people that tout it as a great method of weight loss, and don’t believe the lies that people and brands tell you about restrictive diets being a key to slimming success. Eat healthy, don’t let yourself go hungry, be active, be patient (physical changes take months or even years of work, not the mere weeks diets would have you believe) and, most importantly, remember that whatever your goals, your beauty, confidence and whether or not you deserve to go ahead and live your best life now are not defined by your size.

Review / Maggie Anne Nail Polish in Jasper & Acetone-Free Polish Remover

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Since I first started finding my way when it comes to beauty and cosmetics, I’ve always loved nail polish. Although I have plenty of stints going about my life with bare nails when I’m not feeling bothered enough to paint them, most of the time I just feel weird without varnish on. Being a busy and impatient person, a good quality polish that dries relatively quickly and lasts well enough for at least a week of wear is very, very important to me. If a particular polish chips after a day or if it takes an hour to dry, that’s it, I’m out, and that brand will never be bought from again.

It can sometimes be tough to find vegan and cruelty free nail polishes. My most used range are the Speedy quick dry nail paints by Barry M, which are not only fast drying and relatively long lasting, but have the perfect applicator brush. That’s another point where I get fussy – I don’t fuck about with teeny weeny narrow brushes or brushes with sharp, square edges (I used to hate Barry M’s old brushes and never used them because of this). I want a single stroke to apply the polish and apply it well, is that too much to ask? Back in the day, Essie used to be my go-to brand, but given that they’re not cruelty free I’ve had to look elsewhere for quality nail polishes outside of Barry M that also have the quick dry + durable + perfect brush holy trinity.

I first spotted Maggie Anne while browsing LoveLula’s vegan nail polish section, and saw a couple of reviews around that were pretty positive, so decided to give them a go. Maggie Anne is a brand of ultra glossy, high shine, gel-effect nail polishes that are all cruelty free, vegan and free of the commonly used chemicals found in most other ranges. Because they’re toxin and harmful chemical-free, they’re also advertised as safe for use by pregnant women, patients undergoing treatments for cancer and allergy-sufferers.

The packaging is chic and basic but durable. The polish arrived in a little black box listing the ingredients (not shown) and the bottle is nice and clear with rounded edges, and a glossy black lid. The square lid shown in the photos actually pops off, revealing the ‘real’ cylindrical, twisty lid/applicator thingy.

But how do they perform? Jasper* was the shade I picked to try out first and I was instantly drawn to it – it’s described as a natural beige, and looked like a perfect, cool-toned nude. In terms of application, this baby goes on like a breeze. Maggie Anne’s brushes aren’t quite a 10/10 for me as they do have slightly right-angled edges, but those edges aren’t too sharp and most importantly, they’re wide enough to coat my entire nail in one sweep.

In terms of formula, Jasper is wonderfully opaque. When I first tested it out, I only applied one coat over a clear base, and it was enough to fully coat the nail and wasn’t sheer at all. It also fulfilled its promises of being wonderfully glossy, and the colour is amazing. It’s a nude shade, but it has a cool, almost lilac undertone to it that makes it teeter slightly towards greige on my skin tone and looks absolutely beautiful. It’s a perfect understated, every-day natural nail shade, but it still has a little extra ‘something’ that make it special. That said, I’d say it’s probably more suited to those with neutral and cool undertones and would likely wash out those with warmer undertones.

They aren’t as quick to dry as the Barry M Speedy nail paints, but they are still quick drying. After one coat, I was able to start going about my business again within ten minutes or so without worrying about it getting damaged. With two coats, I was able to do hands-on, risky tasks like washing the dishes within about an hour without chipping or denting the polish. The last more natural, free-of-nasty-chemicals cruelty free nail polish brand I tried was Priti NYC, and although I loved the shades, the formula never seemed to properly dry and I was forever getting awful indentations and marks all over my painted nails. I’m pleased to report that this is not the case with Maggie Anne!

The lasting power of this polish is pretty impressive! Maggie Anne boast 5-7 days of wear with two coats of colour and a clear gel top coat but, as I said, when I first tested Jasper I only applied one coat and didn’t even bother to apply a top coat. I would’ve expected it to not last too long, but it managed 5 days of wear before it started to look a little rough around the edges and chip on some nails. When I applied two coats and a top coat, it’s lasted 7 days and is still going strong – would you believe the above image is day number seven?!

Based on Jasper, Maggie Anne gets a huge thumbs up for their nail polishes from me, and I already have a little collection of other shades I’m itching to try out next. As well as these though, they also do a small range of acetone-free nail polish removers, so given that I’d run out of my old The Body Shop one, I thought I’d give on a go. There are three different scents, and I decided to go with the tempting sounding Blueberry & Pomegranate* option. I’m always slightly sceptical of acetone-free polish removers, because although I prefer the idea of using them, from past experience I’ve had to use much more elbow grease to get my nails clean with them vs. standard formulas… until I tried this one.

I was honestly shocked by how quickly and easily the Maggie Anne polish remover wiped away my nail varnish – my last acetone-free one involved multiple cotton pads and lots of rubbing, but Maggie Anne’s takes just one pad for each hand and a couple of wipes! It’s also infused with argan oil and vitamin E, so helps to nourish your nails rather than just stripping the life out of them.

The only thing that I didn’t quite like about it was that I expected it to smell much fruitier than it actually does. Don’t make the mistake of taking a whiff of it like I did; it doesn’t smell like a nice fragrant bowl of blueberry and pomegranate so much as a normal nail polish with a very faint hint of blueberry. But, you know, scent isn’t really at the top of my demands for a good nail polish remover anyway.

Maggie Anne’s nail polishes (including Jasper) are 11ml of product and available from LoveLula for £10.50 which is a pretty high end price compared to Barry M, so may not be suitable for you if you’re on a tight budget. But, if money isn’t as much of an issue for you, it is still cheaper than other high end brands like Zoya and meets all of my expectations for the price. They have a variety of appealing shades including beautiful, deep burgundies and purples and a few glittery options too. If you’re looking for a new vegan, cruelty free nail polish brand that lasts as long as it says it does, then give Maggie Anne a try!

I would also recommend the nail polish remover, which is £8.95. Again, it’s more expensive than picking up a cheap one at your local Superdrug, but given that I love using nail polish but hate spending time on the upkeep, the fact you don’t need to use much and that it removes my old colour so quickly and efficiently and has the bonus of vitamin E makes it well worth it to me.

What’s your go-to vegan and cruelty free nail polish?

* This review is not sponsored and has not been paid for, however the product was sent to me free of charge. All views and opinions expressed are my own.

My Self-Love Journey

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Had you asked me ten years ago if I would ever be able to love myself and my body, I would have probably said: ‘that’s impossible’. And yet, here I am; a twenty five year old human adult who not only actually likes but loves herself and the way she looks. Although I didn’t include it in my hopes and goals for the year that I posted last month, I resolved this year to try to be more body positive and to foster more self-love within myself and the little blogging community that I’ve surrounded myself with. I figure if I can use the platform, voice and audience that I’ve somehow ended up with to help even one person’s life seem that little bit brighter, then that’s a pretty damn good use of them.

I can vaguely remember the first time I was ever self-conscious about my body back when I must have been no older than five or six – I thought my stomach was too big to wear a swimsuit I was in at the time. The sad reality is that little girls having that kind of anxiety about how they look is becoming more and more common, and sadder still is how hard you have to work to unlearn the bullshit that makes us think this way from such a young age.

When I was a teenager, like many other girls, I preeetty much hated myself. I very quickly went from an active kid, to a post-growth spurt skinny preteen, to a chubby teenager. I was never actually fat – at my largest, I was only ever a UK 12-14 – but I longed to lose weight and not feel like I had to hide myself in baggy hoodies and (during my brief foray into dresses in Sixth Form) loose-fitting summer dresses. I luckily never teetered any further into disordered eating than a couple of restrictive days and silly diets here and there, but my self-worth was still extremely low, and certain activities and articles of clothing and even confidence in general were very much, in my mind, reserved only for those with skinny bodies.

Back in the day, I also used to fat-shame and slut-shame the hell out of other women. The link between how little I valued my own body and my hatred of other women’s was by no means a coincidence – I didn’t realise it then, but I resented them. I resented slim women with the courage to wear tight-fitting clothes because I thought I couldn’t, I resented fat women for daring to take up space because I thought I couldn’t, I resented anyone who wore anything that I didn’t like the look of, just because I didn’t have the guts to do the same without worrying about what others would be thinking. It was internalised misogyny intertwined with pure and simple jealousy.

When I went to university, I suddenly dropped a couple of dress sizes thanks to the abysmal food served in our halls and a more active lifestyle (and by ‘active’ I mean ‘danced quite a bit in clubs’), but my relationship with my body didn’t suddenly mend itself just because I weighed less. Don’t be fooled by the advertisements, the testimonies, the media; loving yourself does not automatically accompany weight loss. Losing that weight was a completely unintentional fluke, but actually taking steps to learn to love my body and to not constantly compare myself to those around me took many more years of work.

Much of my body positivity came after discovering feminism, and was the natural result of unpacking my internalised misogyny and learning to dissect society’s expectations of women. During my four years of university, I educated myself, learned to stop judging other women for their appearances, to recognise that value does not lie in a woman’s size, and to find the beauty and the strength in those around me instead of always nitpicking at the bad. When I used to mentally attack other women for how they looked, I naturally assumed that everyone else was doing the same to me and that it was just normal, but once I pulled myself out of that habit I started to realise that: 1. I have no reason to be so scared because I’m most likely the only person giving a second thought to how I look and 2. If other people do give a shit, I’m not obligated to care what they think.

Of course, at that point I was only dipping my toes into self love. I started to get a little bit more confident, to wear more of what I wanted, to be less afraid of showing my body, but in some ways I was (and still am) suffocated by the same fears I had when I was younger. Showing my belly rolls or pooch would frighten me, and I loathed the fact that my thunder thighs touched. I always imagined a smaller version of myself that fitted the mould of ‘perfect body’ that I was well aware was a load of bullshit, but I wanted it anyway. I saw perfection in other bodies – it was no effort at all to see lovely tiger stripes in other women’s stretch marks, the beauty and power in fat women’s thighs, the softness and strength of exposed belly chub – but like many, I held myself to other standards. Other women are already perfect, but I’m not.

Since then it’s taken years of self-discipline, silencing the voices in my head and faking it until I make it to get to the point I’m at now. Throughout the past couple of years, my once turbulent relationship with health and fitness also finally blossomed and (although I won’t go into too much detail as I’m saving my fitness journey for another time) I was able to fully re-evaluate my goals when working out and do it purely for my mental and physical health and desire to be strong, not to be smaller. I no longer worry and monitor my weight (though I do check up on my muscle mass these days) and while I do still have plenty of insecurities, I’m not afraid to let my body simply exist and take up space in the state that it’s in anymore.

In a video I watched recently, one of my new favourite body positive influencers Kelly U of @_kellyu said something along the lines of: we don’t assign enough value to our own bodies to feel like they deserve to take up space. This really resonated with me and was so, so applicable to how I used to think about my own body. We don’t think we deserve nice things, whether it’s as big as love or happiness or as small as to simply be in a gym or wear a cute pair of shorts, until we take up less space and weigh less than we already do. We don’t value ourselves enough as we are to feel like we can simply enjoy existing and reach our full potential in our current state – there’s always some kind of desire to shrink and change ourselves so that then we can, at last, be who we want to be then and only then.

But we can be who we want to be now, and we deserve to take up space now. Happiness doesn’t come with a smaller dress size and I know now that I’m entitled to exist and to be happy without having to change my appearance. Loving my body is a constant struggle and an ongoing journey though; I still have regular off days. I’ll be feeling myself and think I’m sexy as hell one day, and then for no reason be back to square one and all I’ll be feeling is like I want to wrap myself in a blanket and never be seen in public again. The main difference when I feel like that now versus when I was younger though, is that I can recognise that those thoughts are problematic now and actively challenge my inner demons and self-perception, instead of simply absorbing them as I did before.

We don’t flick the self-love switch and become body confident badasses overnight; it’s a war we constantly wage within ourselves and against the messages society hammers us with on a day-to-day basis. My body confidence may be a work-in-progress, but the fact that I know that my body isn’t one is half the battle.

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