Women in sport: How can we tackle the negative ‘strong woman’ stereotype?

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Former England rugby player Kat Merchant shares her experience of ‘fit shaming’ and how she deals with it

Women in sport: How can we tackle the negative ‘strong woman’ stereotype?

As a former England rugby player, I have always been a ‘strong woman’. It was my job to be the strongest and fittest I could be to win, and that meant being physically muscular to be at peak performance every time I stepped onto the pitch.

Elite women in the sporting spotlight face a huge amount of pressure to perform and look a certain way, which also means our bodies often get judged harshly – particularly in my line of sport. Women rugby players have consistently had to deal with labels like ‘manly’ and ‘unfeminine’. Critics have placed more value in the way we look rather than the way we play, without realising the negative effect this has on our mental health and body confidence.

I’ve received a torrent of online abuse over the years, criticising my muscular appearance as a woman. Society still associates muscle and strength with masculinity – a harmful, outdated stereotype that stops young girls and women from getting into sports and having confidence in their own skin.

Women in sport: How can we tackle the negative ‘strong woman’ stereotype?
Kat Merchant

The first time I received online hate about my appearance was in response to a video of me doing a bicep curl I had uploaded to Instagram. As a personal trainer, it’s important in my line of work to demonstrate the exercise, and to show the right technique for others to follow. That’s the positive side of social media, it makes training skills accessible to a wide audience wanting to better their fitness. But someone decided to respond very negatively, sending a video of them retching at me. At first, seeing that reaction really knocked my confidence. I couldn’t understand why someone felt it necessary to be so hurtful – it even made me consider coming off of social media completely.

I discussed it with my partner, who suggested that I turn it around and show people strength in responding and not letting it affect me. Out of a negative experience, I had been given the opportunity to make female strength more standardised. I could use my platform to actually raise awareness about the abuse strong women get, and hopefully make a difference in a positive way.

It has taken time for me to get to a point where I am less affected mentally, because it is something that can chip away at your confidence and you do get sick of it. But for me, it was almost like doubling down on the hate. Now, if someone comments ‘you look like a man’ on any of my pictures, I respond with another picture where I look really muscular, just to show that not only are they wrong, but there are also consequences for somebody saying something insensitive that can negatively affect someone’s mental health.

Lots of people feel a certain sense of anonymity on social media, where they can

Why you should try writing morning pages to boost your wellbeing

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What are 'morning pages', and how can we make the most of their wellbeing magic by doing this activity every day?

Why you should try writing morning pages to boost your wellbeing

Many of us know the wellbeing benefits of writing, whether it’s creating a gratitude list each week or penning poetry that explores our experiences. Morning pages is an activity that involves writing three pages of stream of consciousness in longhand, first thing each morning. This, according to its inventor, Julia Cameron, can help us think through problems and improve our creativity.

Cameron outlines ‘morning pages’ in her 1992 book, The Artist’s Way, where she explores how we can discover and recover our creative selves. She recommends morning pages as a tool to help overcome creative blocks. And it’s not just for artists: boosting creativity can help us to problem solve in all areas of our lives, making it a worthwhile exercise for everyone.

As a writer, I was curious about trying morning pages. I’ve seen others talk about how they find it useful, and wondered whether it would help me feel more energised to write creatively each day. So I decided to give it a go.

The wellbeing benefits of morning pages

I asked counsellor Jenny Warwick for her insights into how morning pages can support our mental health and wellbeing.

“It gives you the chance to think about, and state, what’s going on for you,” she tells me. “It’s an opportunity to put down literally whatever is at the top of your head without fear of judgement. You can get those thoughts out onto paper and clear them from your mind, so that you can start the day fresh. You may well be surprised at what comes up as a result.

“While it may be tricky initially, it may give you some insight into what’s actually going on in your head, which is surely worth doing for your mental health and wellbeing.”

By writing morning pages every day, we can, Julia Cameron says, work through problems. “It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action. The pages lead us out of despair and into undreamed-of solutions,” she writes in The Artist’s Way.

Morning pages, of course, are written first thing. Which Jenny explains gives you the chance to put your thoughts down on paper before the rest of your daily stuff gets in the way.

“It’s time that you are making specifically for you, and you alone,” she adds. “It’s before the day has gotten in the way of what’s going on in your head. Your mind has been working overnight to process the previous day and is fresh. You could catch some insights as a result of this processing before you start your new day.”

Morning pages involves writing whatever comes to us, without worrying about spelling and grammar, or what other people will think. This, Jenny explains, allows us to pour our thoughts out as they are beginning to take form, knowing that no one else is going to read them. “This means you can tap into thoughts and feelings you might not even realise or recognise that you had, which would be really valuable to know,” says Jenny. “You might even surprise you

How to spot the early signs of SAD

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Seasonal affective disorder, low mood and depression associated with autumn and winter, can make the months ahead challenging, so learn how to spot the early signs

How to spot the early signs of SAD

Summer came to a sudden end this year, bringing with it grey clouds, cool spells, and plenty of rain. Of course, after the heat we experienced in July and August, a drop in temperature is perhaps welcomed, but as we set our sights on the challenges this particular winter season is due to bring, it’s fair to say that the promise of cosy winter days in, curled up with hot drinks, isn’t quite cutting it.

Adding onto that, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects approximately two million people in the UK and 12 million people across Europe, the NHS reports. Sometimes called ‘winter blues’, SAD is categorised as a drop in mood and energy prompted by darker, winter weather. It runs across a wide spectrum. For some, it’s mild, for others it can lead to depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and low self-esteem.

There are a number of treatment avenues available, from so-called ‘SAD lamps’ to medication. And if you think you’re experiencing it, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP or a mental health professional.

As we’re just tipping over into the autumn and winter months, learn the early signs of SAD, so that you can take action before it settles in.

1. You can trace your feelings

If you’ve started to feel low, can you trace when those feelings began, or when they intensified? Was it with the change of the seasons?

You might also want to think back over the years. In general, are there any patterns that you can pick out? Do you often struggle with a certain time of year, and does that time come with additional challenges (for example, a stressful period at work, difficult dates following bereavement, etc.), or is the common theme the weather?

It might be worth starting a record of your low mood, as you might find that it’s boosted on periodic sunny days, which might be a sign that you’re experiencing SAD.

2. Easy tasks start feeling harder

It feels as though, all of a sudden, the things you used to be able to do with ease take a lot more effort, and you’re feeling the brunt of it. Perhaps it’s at work, where getting through to the end of the day feels like a massive chore, or around the home where the things that you used to quickly tick off your to-do list now sit there undone.

When we’re struggling with our mental health, performing to our full capacity is easier said than done, and it can take a lot more out of us to do the things that once came easily.

3. Your sleep is disrupted

A common side effect of SAD, our sleep patterns tell us a lot about our overall wellbeing. Have you noticed that your sleep hasn’t been quite the same since the weather changed? It could be that you’re waking up in the mi

What are the different types of coaching (and which is right for me)?

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We explain more about the different types of coaching, and how working with a coach can help to increase your confidence, redefine your goals, and guide you towards your true potential.

What are the different types of coaching (and which is right for me)?

The coaching industry has exploded in popularity in recent years. In the US, life coaching is the second fastest-growing industry after IT. In the UK, there are now over 370,000 coaching professionals. Yet despite the growing interest in coaching, many people aren’t sure where to start. With so many different types of coaching available (and just as many different price points for single sessions, packages, and block bookings), how do you know the right coaching style for you?

What is coaching (and what can it help me with)?

Coaching (often referred to as life coaching) can refer to any process where a coach helps support you in making positive changes, learning new skills, and setting or achieving goals. A coach may work with you in person, online, or over the phone. Ultimately, a coach aims to help you make progress in one or more areas of your life (personal or professional).

A coach is there to help you make changes, discover more about yourself, and set goals, through using techniques such as questioning, active listening, observation, and reflection. The idea is that, over time, this helps you to gain a greater sense of self-awareness and personal insight, thanks to working with a non-judgemental, unbiased coach.

With help and support, you can discover a sense of clarity, direction, and focus. Many find that coaching can help boost their confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem. By working with someone, it can be easier to feel motivated, as you create a sense of accountability. You can also learn new skills, and discover new techniques and approaches to help you improve different areas of your life, from building emotional resilience and setting healthy boundaries, to setting career or financial goals.

What can’t coaching do?

In order for coaching to work, you need to be committed and open to the process. If you aren’t ready to make changes, or aren’t willing to put in the time and effort needed, you aren’t going to see the results.

If you’re in the right mindset, and find a coach that you feel comfortable being open and honest with, coaching can be a life-changing experience offering numerous benefits.

It’s important to remember that, while many coaches can help with wellbeing issues, coaching and counselling are not the same. If you are struggling with ill mental health, addiction, trauma, or other serious concerns, it is important to work with someone who is trained to help within that area.

Here we share more details about the different kinds of coaching on offer, and how you can figure out which one is right for you.

Health and wellness coaching

When you think about improving your health and wellbeing, what first comes to mind? Practising mindfulness, working with a nutritionist, talking with a therapist?

6 tips on how to handle mismatched work-life balance in relationships

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They say opposites attract. But when you’ve got vastly different work-life priorities to your partner, how can you find a happy balance that works for both of you?

6 tips on how to handle mismatched work-life balance in relationships

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is tricky. Research shows that more than half (52%) of UK employees admit that work regularly eats into their personal life. And, worldwide, the UK ranks 11th for work-life balance, with the average worker putting in 22 days of unpaid overtime each year. That’s pretty staggering, when you sit back and think about it.

But what happens when our work-life balance isn’t just affecting us? And what should you do when you and your partner have very different priorities?

My partner and I are very much in opposite camps regarding what feels like a healthy work-life balance. While I’m happy to jot down a few ideas outside of working hours, I’m pretty strict about switching off. My partner, on the other hand, would have continued taking work calls on our wedding day, if someone hadn’t confiscated his phone.

If you’re worried that your relationship may be affected by your different attitudes to work and life, there are plenty of small changes you can make to help take the pressure off.

1. Talk it out

Sitting down to have an open, honest, and frank conversation should be one of your first steps. This can help to make sure that you’re on the same page. What may feel like completely reasonable behaviour to one of you (“It’s only a couple of emails.” “What’s the harm in one more work call before dinner?”) may be causing unnecessary stress, anxiety, or resentment for the other. No matter how close you are, you both need to remember that your partner is not a mind reader. They may not know something is wrong if you don’t tell them.

2. Negotiate boundaries

Once you’ve established which areas are causing issues, try and work out boundaries. An outright ban on out-of-hours emails may cause a build-up of stress that wasn’t there before, while ignoring boundaries could cause frustration. By creating boundaries together through discussions, you can establish what works for you both. Keep returning to these boundaries regularly to help judge if they are working as intended, or if there could be a better way to try things moving forward.

3. Discuss your shared goals

We each have very different driving motivations. Some people are career-driven, while others find fulfilment outside of their work. It’s OK if your core values are different from your partners; there’s no right or wrong way to be, but gaining a clear awareness of what drives each of you can help you develop a better understanding of one another in the long-term.

4. Let go of resentment

Staying angry or upset about your different work priorities can lead to resentment, further hurt feelings, frustration, and misunderstandings. If you feel negative feelings continuing to linger or build, it could be a sign that you and your partner need to communicate better about your needs, boundaries, and expectations. Holding onto negativity can only hurt you in the long run – but that doesn’t mean it should