This week’s Gintlemen post comes from Lee Jenkins. Lee is a Bolton based writer, who has appeared on C4 News and RT News and contributes to a number of political and foreign policy journals.
But whereas his expertise might be somewhat political, this blog is all about body positivity and, with fresh eyes, he looks at the Free to Be OK With Me video campaign. Is it for him?
On an unremarkable day in September a group of twelve remarkable individuals met in an unfurnished room in central Manchester. The exposed red brick, synonymous with a city at the vanguard of the industrial revolution played host to a very different though no less important revolution quietly taking place across Britain.
The participants were all members of a Manchester based group called Free to be ok with Me. The group’s aims, according to its founder Lauren Coulman, are to bring to the forefront the variety of body issues that people experience, and provide a positive and supportive space for people to explore those issues.
With this brief, project curator and body-positive campaigner Jen Eastwood set the participants a challenge – identity a personal trait that is traditionally held negative connotations or associations, then say why this holds no power over you.
The results were as varied as they were inspiring. Topics ranged from eyebrows to body shape and included some less outwardly manifested challenges such as mental health and sexuality.
The video, forms part of a larger campaign of events, book clubs, talking circles, photo shoots, as well as an active online community sharing stories and experiences. The group attracts members from across all genders, ethnicities and age groups, with equal voice given to all. No topic is off limits, though members all agree to a few house rules to ensure sensitive issues are discussed in a constructive but conscientious way.
As an active member of the group this author attest to its attributes. It’s not just another echo chamber. It doesn’t try to hide from outside world. All diversity is celebrated, including diversity of opinion. This was made manifest in the video project – few events would have been able to gather such a range backgrounds and life experiences yet still come out with a unified message. And the fact that everybody there did so in their own time and out of their own pocket speaks volumes for how much the group and it’s aims mean to them.
As a (relatively) young, white, heterosexual CIS male, I’ve historically been on scarcely more than nodding terms with body issues. On the odd occasional I did venture an opinion it was quickly made very clear that my views were at best not welcome, and worst outright harmful. The lesson I took was that my packaging was wrong, how I looked meant my views were discounted before they were heard.
It was therefore with a due sense of trepidation that I approached the FTBOWM campaign and its projects – after all there’s only so many times one can be rejected for not ticking the correct boxes. Imagine then by surprise not only being welcomed, but being asked my opinion. There was even, wait for it, a ready supply of good natured humour.
As a gregarious chap I was obviously happy to be involved in a new group with new people and new opportunities to connect and learn, but it wasn’t long before I started to hear about issues that kindled the tentative flames of recognition in my own experiences. For possibly the first time I started to really think about how I see myself; what doesn’t conform to what people “should” look like, what problems have I just shrugged off but in fact really do impact how I go about life – in short what goes into making me me?
I have always had a stammer. I spent most of my childhood not being able to say my own name and praying nobody would ask me a question. Even today I must mentally plan each sentence, hastily thinking of synonyms if I can see a word approaching which I know I’m going to struggle with. I’d never considered this a body issue, but when you look at it… it sort of is. I’m lanky. Going to an all-boys school where sport was a big deal, not having the physique or physical prowess your friends do – this still affects me. This is a body issue. I have lost my hair. I feel older and less attractive than I should do at this age and I’m envious of people who do have hair. This is a body issue. I have a varicocele. Not only does it hurt all the time, I feel like there’s something wrong with me “down there”. This is a body issue.
FTBOWM made thinking and talking about body issues approachable. Listening to people who don’t look like they should have experience of body issues talk about body issues forces you to question your presumptions. There’s no approved list of body issues – if it matters to you it’s an issue. And if it’s an issue then it’s ok to talk about it.