Customer service

It was a mild Tuesday afternoon. The shop was unseasonably quiet. I think deep down we were all hoping for a chance to escape the monotony of the everyday retail environment we’d come to know and mildly despise. Then it happened. On the surface it sounded crazy but I knew we couldn’t turn our backs on this one. So, I dared to speak the words out loud. “Do we have anything like the necklace this lady was wearing?” Off the top of my head, no, I simply could not place having an item replicating the one the lady was holding. But, what did I know? I do work on the nonspecific jewellery department of this nonspecific department store but, really, how relevant could that information be in this one woman quest for familiarity?

It’s a humble department separated in to similar fashions and products. At the back were the watches, both men’s and women’s, but I was certain we wouldn’t have anything there. In the middle was the gold carat jewellery. The necklace in question was covered in multi coloured pastel beads so common sense would indicate we’d have nothing like it there either. But there was no room for questioning ourselves here, we had to act and fast. Should we check to be on the safe side or cut our losses and keep going? After all, we were already half way through the department. She checked. Nothing. No time to cry over spilt milk though, we had to move on.

The silver jewellery section; it felt like hope was lost. It really wasn’t possible, having worked on this particular section for eight months I did know this for an actual fact but she didn’t care. The sheer determination was admirable. She simply rebuffed me every time I tried to throw her off track with genuine product knowledge. How could I ever hope to help her along this quest if I kept coming along with pesky facts?

And there it was; the costume jewellery section, the area I had originally suggested. No longer was this a discarded idea but a glimmering beacon of hope in this treacherous journey. We had things covered in beads here, who’s to stop us finding something here? No, nothing. I could see she was defeated, as was I. What was left of us as people now? All that was left to do was ask her where she got this fantastical item in the first place. Maybe this could give us some sense of hope. She started this epic tale off modestly enough, as I leant over the pearl counter in overwhelming anticipation, that it was just a ‘cheap little thing’ but she really loved it. Her fondness was touching and I wondered if I could ever love a material possession that wasn’t my iPhone as much as she loved this necklace, until she said the words ‘handmade’, ‘street market’, ‘when I was in Tunisia’ and ‘last year.’

And with this sentence, I never loved again.

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GENDER, SEX AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

This is the article I wrote for my dissertation project during my MA. Many months of blood, sweat and tears but it was worth it. Enjoy.

Fed up of being reduced to tabloid fodder, the transgender community are taking matters in to their own hands. Sofia Farelli looks at how attitudes and perceptions are changing for the better.

“Did neither of my kids ever notice the complete absence of male underwear on the washing line all their lives?”

Andie Davidson, 55, was born male but became convinced as a teenager that her real identity was female. This was during the 1970s, a time when transgender simply wasn’t a currency, people didn’t talk about it and was something you “just didn’t do.” It took a long time before she realised she wasn’t alone. Like many transgender people, Andie could only express her identity by wearing women’s underwear – though her family remained oblivious.

After living as a man her entire life it all got too much for Andie and with a weekend to herself, went shopping for women’s clothing. This was the beginning of 18 months of self-discovery, what she calls ‘the silent scream.’ Andie says; “shopping for outerwear was more of a release than anything and having freedom to buy things I really wanted – not my normal shopping experience for yet more grey trousers.”

Not wishing to project the image of a transvestite, Andie stuck to wearing women’s underwear. This was something her wife was had always been aware of and agreed it was harmless fun and even a bit sexy. What she didn’t realise was Andie was also trying on her clothes in private.

After 40 years of secrecy Andie realised that “being a woman fit” and came to understand that she had never felt like a man.

“A lot of trans people feel that what they are ‘not’ is a stronger conviction than what they ‘are’,” she adds.

…gender identity is what the person perceives themselves to be.

Medically, being ‘transgender’ is known as gender dysphoria: a mismatch between a person’s biological sex and their gender identity. A person’s biological sex is determined by genitalia at birth but gender identity is what the person perceives themselves to be. So someone can have the anatomy of a woman but feel innately that they are male. And vice versa.

The NHS estimates that 1 in 4,000 people in the UK are receiving medical help for gender dysphoria. However, the number could be larger based on those who have yet to seek help. On average men are diagnosed with gender dysphoria five times more often than women. Awareness of the condition is growing, consequently, so is diagnosis.

People wishing to live as their gender identity can seek treatment so that their physical appearance is more consistent with their identity. But the condition is still mired in prejudice and, in some cases, can attract real venom.

“Being the girl with the dad who is a ‘tranny’ is something she doesn’t want to understand, let alone explain or defend.”

While Andie now lives with a sense of confidence and freedom as a woman, the experience has certainly had lower points, she says. “My daughter has to all intents divorced me. Since seeing me in a skirt last August she will not speak to or even acknowledge me. Her transphobia – an irrational fear and or hostility towards, people who are transgender or who otherwise appear beyond traditional gender norms – is extreme but also more complex in that it’s to do with how it reflects on her. Being the girl with the dad who is a ‘tranny’ is something she doesn’t want to understand, let alone explain or defend.”

Similarly, while Andie’s wife understood the nature of gender dysphoria, she could not accept suddenly being in a relationship with another woman.

“My wife does not ‘become a lesbian’ by sleeping with me, but everything she has learned tells her this. But we have to remember we are conditioned by our lives thus far, in school, in social groups, the media. It protects us from uncertainties about ourselves to distinguish this from that and to know what we are to other people.”

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, publicly collected data on trans people is virtually non-existent. Last year’s UK census did not ask people if they identify as trans and there are no plans to ask about it in the future. In 2009,  a study from the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) estimated there were between 300,000 – 500,000 people who experience some degree of gender variance – that is gender behaviour that does not conform to dominant societal norms of male and female.

Laura*, 20, a student and part time care assistant, identifies as ‘gender fluid’, a group who take their gender to be free of specific pronouns and not something to be constrained in to one of two simple tick boxes. Laura initially adopted a male identity in 2009, intending to acquire hormones from the NHS in an attempt to appear ‘more male’ to society.

Laura says: “I was coming to the final stage of getting hormones but was told I would need to officially change my name by deed poll. I wasn’t out to my family at the time and didn’t want to change my name. I wanted to be able to pick and choose what parts of transitioning I wanted, rather than follow a subscribed path laid out by the NHS.”

It was a dilemma. Laura was terrified of not being “trans enough” but believed that living exclusively as a man was making life no happier than identifying exclusively as female. Laura opted to become gender fluid and now asks to be recognised with gender neutral pronouns.

“You get little kids asking if you’re a boy or a girl and you say ‘I’m neither!’ and you can see their minds are blown.”

“It no longer felt like I was trying to trick the NHS system but also because I was being more honest with myself,” Laura adds.

Sky Yarlett, 24, is a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) officer for the National Union of Students (NUS) and identifies as gender fluid. Sky is “lucky to not have experienced the extreme side of transphobia”, adding: “You get little kids asking if you’re a boy or a girl and you say ‘I’m neither!’ and you can see their minds are blown.”

Sky hopes by identifying as gender fluid they’re slowly challenging people’s perceptions of gender, simultaneously the lack of understanding around the idea of being gender neutral can be frustrating.

Sky says, “depending on who I’m with sometimes I just won’t talk about it and move on. Sometimes I do feel a bit isolated but I’m lucky there’s a massive support group online with people who do understand and will take the time to listen, especially in the student movement.”

Sky adds, “Sometimes even talking to a councillor can make you nervous because they might not understand or worse. In these groups you know the people really ‘get’ you.”  Sky took great pleasure in writing a dissertation on the self-representation of the transgender community in response to how they are perceived in the media. It was here Sky discovered the growing online presence of the community and was looking at the popularity of setting up personal websites and online community forums. Sky says, “There’s a few media outlets that show a lack of understanding and unfortunately what they don’t understand, they tend to mock. There’s a lot of naivety but also a lot of potential to make it better. Despite some lazy journalism there have been some good advents since I wrote about it.”

Pioneering transgender charity Trans Media Watch (TMW) conducted a study last year of 256 trans people and their perceptions of how trans issues are covered in the media. Some 70 per cent felt that media portrayals of transgender people were either negative or very negative and 78 per cent that these portrayals were either inaccurate or highly inaccurate. And – in a telling comment on the level of disconnection trans people feel – 95 per cent responded that they felt the media did not care what transgender people feel about this question.

In a landmark move for the transgender community, treasurer of TMW, Helen Belcher submitted evidence to the Leveson inquiry claiming the media had ‘created a climate of prejudice’ against trans people. Citing newspaper headlines – such as The Sun’s “Tran-o-saurus” story about a particularly tall trans person – as evidence that some media outlets had not changed their ways despite the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code of conduct being amended to include protecting gender identity.

Belcher told the inquiry the “trans community has more or less walked away from the PCC” claiming “nothing ever changes” as a results of complaints made The PCC, the independent body dealing with complaints about magazine and newspaper content, including online material, currently has no guidelines for journalists when reporting on transgender issues. There is general guidance in the PCC code:

Clause 12 of the PCC code clarifies that journalists are to ‘avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability.’ It goes on to state that ‘details…must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.’ The clause was amended in 2005 after the passing of the Gender Recognition Act, allowing individuals undergoing – or who had undergone – gender reassignment to be protected from harmful reporting.

TMW has created guides for journalists when writing about trans issues and similarly one for transgender individuals for how to deal with the press.

Catherine Spiller, press officer for the PCC, says while there may be no guidelines in place, the clause is very clear. She says, “One of the strengths of the Editor’s Code of Practice is the protection it gives specifically to personal individuals.”

Spiller cites the example of a complaint upheld in 2009 when Keira McCormack objected to an article about her in Sunday Life headlined “TRANNY WORKED IN RAPE CENTRE.” Her suitability to her job as a rape counsellor was brought in to question owing to her being a male to female transgender. McCormack was referred to as a ‘tranny’ in the main text and was described as ‘strapping’ and ‘burly’ which she found “deeply insulting.”

Spiller adds, “This complaint was upheld and the PCC has used this case as a mean of making clear to the industry that the term is unacceptable to transgendered people and is a breach of Clause 12.” She says the PCC will continue to engage with representatives of the transgender community in the coming months.

Christine Burns, a leading figure in the transgender community and previously Press for Change (PFC) – a legal support organisation for trans people – remains positive that attitudes are shifting.

She says, “There have always been considerate and supportive people and there have always been the reverse. It appears that there are more people living their transitions openly and confidently now compared to when I was receiving pleas for help virtually every other day during my time at PFC. There’s certainly less excuse for ignorance.”

Away from the media, Laura’s experience tells a different story. “I honestly couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been laughed at or asked ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ I have been called things like ‘faggot’, ‘homo’, ‘gayboy’, ‘poof’, I’ve had drinks thrown at me in the street and been spat on. It’s degrading and humiliating but I’ve learnt to brush it off.”

Channel 4 has run many transgender documentaries including ‘My Transsexual Summer’ and ‘The Boy Who Was Born a Girl’ but they’ve been subject to severely mixed responses from the transgender community. Burns says it’s a difficult one to call, “Generally people place a lot of hope that each one will be transformative in attitudes. However, it depends entirely on the treatment and the audience. Some have been dreadful and others merely incompetent. There is still a great deal of exploitation and broken promises or outright lies by cynical producers.”

Sky highlights ‘My Transsexual Summer’ in particular for its honest coverage of trans people but feared gaps in knowledge for people who don’t understand transgender. “One of the people on the show called the group ‘tranny warriors’. Now, within the trans community some people really enjoy reclaiming this word and find it empowering but many also found it insulting because of how it can be used. I don’t feel comfortable with it, people have died whilst being called a ‘tranny’. It can make it difficult to explain to someone that it’s an offensive term but it’s ok for others to use it.”

Laura believes there is still some work to be done as transgender is such a large umbrella term these documentaries are still leaving gaps in knowledge. Laura says, “They can be positive because they portray trans people in a way that isn’t mocking or degrading. They are informative and certainly promote acceptance and understanding. However, they almost exclusively promote this idea of transitioning from ‘one’ gender to ‘the other.’ These shows aren’t perfect, they are helpful but can sometimes miss the point.”

The issues can stem from the focus being on a trans person’s medical history and their journey through transitioning surgically. An individual can become a spectacle rather than be seen as a real person with real, important lives and concerns. Laura feels that trans programmes made by and for non-trans people can be problematic because they can fetishize trans people almost akin to a wildlife documentary. Laura says, “What I would really like to see in the media is shows about trans people by trans people or, at least, created by trans people. We can then be free to share our experience free from whatever spin the TV companies put on us to sell our experiences.”

Andie believes the media can be forgiven for unfamiliarity, but only for a while. She says, “Sensationalism and sex sells, so gender and sex are a bundle. It’s not all bad but misuse of pronouns, derogatory treatment and sheer inaccuracy all hurt trans people everywhere. If they realised how ordinary it is to be me, there would be no story at all.”

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Gossip magazines and me.

Over the past few weeks I have delighted in reading @londonfeminist’s weekly acerbic take down of Closer Magazine via Twitter. The very fact that the stories in the magazine can be condensed in to 140 characters speaks volumes, and she even wrote about it here. Inspired, I thought I’d take on the task of reading these magazines for myself. And I mean, actually reading them. Something that has always stuck with me is a conversation I once had with my wonderful magazine tutor where I was dismissing The Sun and the Daily Mail. She quite rightly pointed out that these are some of the most successful publications in the country and I shouldn’t be so quick to put them down. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to read newspapers and magazines that I wouldn’t typically choose, in an attempt to understand what it is that is making them sell. What do these people who are being paid to write have that I don’t?

So, I bought Heat, Closer, Reveal and Now. Please believe me when I say I am not judgemental when it comes to escapist trash. I bloody love The Hills and I don’t care who knows it. It’s empty shots of empty pretty faces with no concept of life and they wear fabulous shoes. I love it. I went in to this with an open mind but I came out of completely and utterly… exhausted.

After pages and pages of false journalism, health and beauty ‘tips’ – or reminders to stop being disgusting or how will you ever get a man? – and celebrity cattiness I was just knackered. The media has never made it a secret that they clearly think celebrities are not real people but this was just upsetting. There was countless speculation on relationship break ups, body hang ups and false quotes used for headlines. It was just shoddy journalism when all is said and done. Quotes were presented as if said by the celebrity, for example; Reveal want you to think Alexandra Burke said ‘I wish I’d never won X Factor’ when in fact it was Reveal’s own insider who said ‘she almost wishes she’d never won X Factor’. Although, what else can you expect from a magazine that decides to forgo a contents page? My hopes were dashed instantly.

They could never be accused of shying away from the issues.

Further to this, I did a little digging and found this is an alarmingly common practise. In Closer, there were 12 major celebrity stories and only four of them contained quotes from the actual person they were writing about, not just insiders, pals or sources. Now came in with a not so bad, by these standards anyway, four out of seven. Heat didn’t surprise with six out of 17. Reveal just stormed through with one out of 12.

I can’t tell you how much I’d love to see how these magazine’s newsrooms actually function. And who are these people giving out these stories, these so called ‘pals’? It was through reading these stories that I even managed to muster sympathy for celebrities. Their weaknesses are paraded for our enjoyment. Think about how often you walk past a magazine stand, can you imagine having details about your presumably painful break up blasted on a front page with information handed over by people you believe to be your friends?

And god forbid if you’ve had the audacity to go from a size eight to a 12. Seriously, fatty, go put on that dress with the horizontal stripes – they’re slimming, you see, – and hide away until you lose those ‘curves’ that magazines pretend to love so much. Stop parading around until you reach that acceptable size eight. Of course, then you’ll only be berated because you look so gaunt. But it will be ok because you’ll have friends to clarify your weight worries, if in fact you have any, to Reveal and then you’ll be shamed in to eating. Closer even took it upon themselves to praise Mel B for getting her six pack back. I know, I was relieved too. Her obligatory ‘before’ photo was taken three weeks after she gave birth so it was really about time she dropped to a ‘toned size 8’.

Honestly, just kill me now.

Of course, you’d save yourself so much self-loathing if you just stopped eating but if you really have to make sure it’s nothing unhealthy. These magazines are on hand to tell you exactly how many calories are in any foods you might dare to enjoy and which ones to swap them with. Just reading about diets on page after page made me want a Big Mac topped with a steak.

So, what did I take away from these magazines? Not much. They certainly serve their purpose for mindless gossip and that’s fine, but it personally makes me yearn for something better for women. I just want to be able to pick up a magazine that genuinely celebrates women, not berates them.

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Holding out for a hero

Defined by the Oxford dictionary, chivalry is but a simple noun that relates to the medieval knightly system and the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight; namely courage, honour, courtesy, justice and a readiness to the help the weak. It was all going so well until that last bit.

Fast forward a few centuries and we now understand it as courteous behaviour, especially that of a man towards women. Debate is sparked, not so much from the idea, but from the expectations. Men are expected to behave in a certain manner around a woman and women are expected to be grateful no matter what the context.

The Society for the Psychology of Women came under fire last year for declaring chivalry a form of ‘benevolent sexism.’ I say ‘under fire’, but the extent of the criticisms didn’t venture too far beyond calling them stupid/selfish feminists who should be focussing on other things.

What followed, of course, were the inevitable assertions that all feminists are man hating machines who wish the whole gender be eradicated to fuel their own benevolent wishes of no shaving and wearing flat shoes.

Courtesy of @SWW_III

The British public have this remarkable skill of taking everything monumentally personally. By one group attacking chivalry, men everywhere scurried in a frenzy to defend their actions against the ‘stupid feminists.’

But, I think somewhere along the way we’ve all missed the point. The men who hold doors open for women will be the very same ones who would hold the door open for another man. It’s politeness.

When I’m fighting my way up train station steps with a bulky suitcase and a man offers to help me out, I don’t see it as his way of asserting his manhood and ownership over my gender. No, I see it as an act of human solidarity. Let’s just help someone out when they’re struggling. It’s a basic sense of human decency.

I also see it as a way of making up for the fact that some men – bad men – feel it’s appropriate to walk past you in the street, in broad daylight, and call you a ‘sexy bitch.’ The ones who still wolf whistle, the ones that make no secret of just staring at you and licking their lips and even the ones who make a quacking noise followed by a loud statement of ‘FIT’ in my face. And, yes, I’ve experienced all of these incidents and they were far more uncomfortable than you’re imagining.

And let’s face it, it’s not like men are so quick to accept help. I once offered my boyfriend a tissue after he sneezed and he looked at me like with that tissue came the surgical removing of his testicles. All that help has to go somewhere so give it to the girl with the pram and shopping bags who looks like she may have to open the door with her teeth.

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I try to be serious.

There was a particularly dark week in April that was officially known as ‘newsweek’ but I felt it was more suited to ‘hellish and long and sucky week’. Admittedly, not as catchy but feels far more accurate. During this week we were to produce a forty page local magazine about sports. You may not know this about me but I hate sport. I enjoy the odd game of rugby – more so when I know that Wales will win and, I’ll be honest, I love the short shorts – and Wrestlemania is a genuine highlight of my year. But, that’s far as my sports interest lies. I would overall say I really bloody hate sport. I was the asthmatic kid in school so never really formed a bond with it.

So dedicating a week to writing about local and national sports and the Olympics did not excite me in the slightest. I’d love to tell you I had a moment of epiphany where I realised how wonderful sport is and recognised what joys the Olympics are going to bring to the country but I can’t. I’m grumpier about sport than ever.

However, I’m an adaptable and competent writer and so I took it upon myself to offer to write a feature on mental health in sports players. Mental health is an issue I have a lot of time for and so was happy to do this. It was torn apart by my tutor (albeit in a lovely and caring manner that she’s remarkably good at because I think deep down she knows I’m a wimp and will cry when my writing is criticised) and I pretty much had to re-write the whole thing but alas you live and learn.

So, this is my shot at a feature on mental health in sports players. Any thoughts are welcome as I will admit I struggled writing about something that requires a certain level of sensitivity. This may be the only time I hope I don’t offend anyone *serious face*

PLAYING MIND GAMES

Sport has long been about a player’s physical abilities but with more and more athletes speaking out about mental health it’s clear there is more going on that meets the eye

By his own admission Duncan Bell has only ever known rugby since joining the youth ranks at 19. In a starkly honest interview with the Telegraph, the Bath prop Bell announced his retirement at age 37 and spoke of his private battle with depression. He knew things weren’t right, the shifts in his moods were becoming more apparent to others but he couldn’t admit he had a mental health problem. Bell knew very well why he couldn’t face reality. He told the Telegraph, “It’s a sign of weakness, especially in such a male-dominated, testosterone-fuelled arena as a rugby team. It’s a real admission of failure.”

Is this what makes some people believe athletes are immune to a serious mental illness? These are strong and healthy young men and women, competing in a sport they excel at and often getting paid a vast amount of money to do something they enjoy. To the untrained eye it seems they have very little to complain about.

Time to Change – an anti-stigma campaign run by the leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness – found in a 2009 study that 92% of people believe admitting to a mental health problem would damage their career. The theory that the psychological pressures of playing sport at the highest level are immense, with many athletes having trained from an early age to succeed has been supported many charities and campaigns.

Time to Change work in partnership with football organisations – including The FA and former England captain Tony Adams’ clinic, Sporting Chance – to harness the power of the beautiful game as a force for social change. Together they want to make football more accessible to people with mental health problems and use the sport to reach new audiences.

Larissa Abl, press officer for Time to Change, said, “The fact that so many famous faces are opening up more about mental health will help to reduce stigma. Since being founded in 2007 we have reached out to millions of people and have seen a significant reduction in mental health discrimination and we have started to improve public attitudes towards people with mental health problems.”

In a major conference in London, entitled the Depression – A Social and Economic Time-bomb, experts predicted that depression will be the second leading cause of death worldwide by 2020.

According to the NHS, one in four people in the UK suffer from mental health issues which can take a great toll on their everyday lives. Without correct support and treatment it can have a serious effect on the individual and those around them. Every year in the UK, more than 250,000 people are admitted to psychiatric hospitals and over 4,000 people commit suicide.

There is a fundamental ideal that participating in competitive sport will lead to positive outcomes such as better social development and increased physical health. However, the extreme mental and physical demands often placed upon athletes can also lead to damaged self-esteem, anxiety and depression if they’re seen to be failing.

Stan Collymore, ex Aston Villa footballer, became an eloquent spokesman for those suffering in silence when he bared his soul to almost twelve thousand Twitter followers detailing very openly his battle with depression. Collymore very honestly told his followers what depression meant to him “as the illness has so many facets, and varies from bout to bout, that it can be hard to explain to a fellow sufferer, never mind someone fortunate enough to have never been afflicted.”

He acknowledged that he kept himself in good physical condition and ran 10k every day, but felt anxious and his fear felt irrational. He closed his confession appealing to others who were also suffering to seek help and reiterated; “you are not alone, there are millions of us.”

England cricketer Marcus Trescothick’s debilitating battle with his mental health was documented in his award winning book Coming Back to Me in 2008. Trescothick’s bouts of depression were said to be triggered by stark homesickness. The separation from his wife and daughters made it impossible for him to complete – or ultimately even attempt – an international tour. He was given the go-to diagnosis of ‘stress related illness’ which inevitably leads to great speculation form the media. Battling with mental health could only be more difficult when having to deal with it in the public eye – even for this big, strong and accomplished athlete.

Stress expert, professor Cary Cooper CBE also believes that sport can make people more vulnerable because of the excessive nerves, stress and heightened expectations. Speaking in the 2009 BBC documentary Mind Games, he says, “There’s a whole load of pressures on sports personalities and they range from the expectations of the fans or those of the country. Incidentally there’s also pressure to live up to the expectations of your team.” Professor Cooper also notes the relationship athletes have with their coach, whether it’s good or bad or if they value them or not, can create further impact on mental wellbeing.

Psychology Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University Dr Kimberley Bartholomew has explored the impact of coach behaviour – a central figure in any sporting environment – on athletes’ feelings of independence, competence and empathy. She says, “My findings suggest that pressuring coach behaviours make athletes feel ‘controlled’ and ‘rejected’ and this has a negative influence on their motivation and subsequent well-being.”

Bartholomew further believes that whilst those involved in sport are certainly becoming aware of these influences and the importance of supporting players’ psychological well-being (i.e. not only physical training) there still remains a stigma attached to mental illness in sport. “The idea of ‘mental toughness’ still plays a key role in succeeding at high level sport,” she said.

The Guardian reported last year on the Footballer’s guidebook which looks at the stressful situations that professionals face and suggests ways to handle them. Devised by the Professional Footballers’ Association, in conjunction with the Football Association, it was brought to life by author Susannah Strong. Speaking to the BBC, Strong insists there is still a lot to be done. “The thing now is about prevention. “There needs to be more communication. That needs to start before people become unwell, right at the beginning. It needs to be ok to talk about mental health.”


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My quiet return to the internet

I last wrote on my Tumblr (R.I.P) in August of last year. I have been horribly busy doing my very best to gain an MA in magazine journalism and, unfortunately, as a result it feels like I can barely write anymore. So, this is my quiet return to the world of blogging in hope that my inspiration will be overwhelming and I’ll have words coming out of my ears. Or something like that.

I thought a hearty way of welcoming in a shiny new blog would be my interview with Jon Paul Kaiser, a toy designer and the nicest man you could ever meet. Enjoy.

Jon Paul Kaiser is a rising star in the small community of UK toy designers, here he talks to Sofia Farelli about the creative process, career highlights and where it all began.

Imagine having just spent over fifty hours creating a hand painted and eye wateringly intricate piece of art to then find that with one blast of spray you had to throw it all away. Custom toy designer Jon Paul Kaiser, 33, recalls this very incident with a look of unmistakable heartbreak, “I always draw with biro and didn’t test the varnish beforehand, which was a silly thing to do. There was nothing I could do. I just had to throw it away and start from scratch.”

Kaiser is describing the process of creating a designer toy to me as someone who has only the vaguest idea of what he does. He admits he constantly has to do that, mostly to his own mum. Laughing, he says, “She doesn’t quite understand that I basically colour in toys and people buy them.” Of course, it isn’t that simple but it is very black and white.

Armed with a distinctive and award winning monochrome style Kaiser remains faithful to the way he has always drawn in his sketch books, “my designs have always been very heavily shadowed because I typically work in markers and pens because when you can draw you don’t necessarily need colour.

“Another advantage is I’ve noticed when I’m doing shows with lots of different people showing one of their pieces so there’s maybe two dozen on display and mine tend to stand out just because it’s stark and you see it from a distance, your eyes are drawn to it because there’s no board of contrast with just black and white so I’m sticking with it.” He certainly won’t shy away from the occasional use of colour as is demonstrated by his recent Captain America custom, and while it’s plain to others that it’s a skilfully and polished toy, Kaiser, showing classic elements of a perfectionist just felt “it wasn’t as striking as it should’ve been.”

“If I’m really stuck for an idea I’ll ask my wife, Kelly, because she comes up with the best ideas.”

Alongside his job as a licensed clothing designer, Kaiser has gained a loyal following. With each toy being so painstakingly detailed and professional, it’s easy to see how he has managed to make a good name for himself. He has an extensive collection of toys with popular specialist producers ‘Toy2R’ and ‘SoSo Happy’ and even has a small number of A-list celebrity commissions under his belt. These include an official Star Wars figure collection for New York comic convention and a very specific custom for an enigmatic American actor who must sadly remain nameless.

Toy collecting has always been a part of Kaiser’s life – “much to the chagrin of my parents during my teen years when I was still buying Transformers toys” – and his interest lead him to the University of East Anglia to do a degree in model making. It was there Kaiser really fell in love with the world of toy customisation. He says, “a friend introduced me to a designer he knew, we all got talking about toys and he showed me a website that had the full making of this one particular designer toy.

“It showed the full process from the comic book to jotting the designs, the initial sculpting, paint and colour tests all the way through to the finished figure complete with packaging designs.

“I just thought it was so impressive that someone who isn’t a massive company had designed this amazing quality toy – or rather an ornament –  the whole process was so beautiful to see and it was this whole process that sucked me in.”

The domain of designer toys may be a relatively new art form in the UK but is fairly popular in the US. Kaiser admits the small community in his home country makes it feel somewhat special but having been able to showcase his work across the pond – and across Asia – he says there’s no feeling quite like an American audience, “People just wanted to shake my hand and were queuing up to meet me which I’ve never really had before. I’m not used to people gushing about my work. I found it a bit odd at first but it’s such an eye opener.”

He has interpreted a range of popular culture characters – and a number of his own creations – from Hans Solo and Darth Vadar to Captain America and The Seven Samurai. It’s clear from his work that Kaiser has a very active imagination, with a coy smile he admits, “I still daydream an awful lot, I’ll take the dog for a walk for an hour and I won’t really see much in that hour because in my head I’m fighting battles and pretending I’m a samurai and other stupid stuff that you shouldn’t really admit to.

“I try not to copy or take inspiration from other peoples work but you can’t help but be influenced. If I’m really stuck for an idea I’ll ask my wife, Kelly, because she comes up with the best ideas.”

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