Sitting Target: On Vulnerability and Public Perception

Every picture tells a story but it’s never the whole one, as T Australia’s regular columnist — and occasional portrait subject — Bri Lee explains.

Article by Bri Lee

Bri LeeA series of portraits of Bri Lee, photographed by Saskia Wilson.

Last month I said yes to a request I would normally say no to. There’s no way to explain this without sounding self-important, so I’ll just come out with it: people sometimes ask to paint my portrait. These requests are immensely flattering, of course. Once you’ve published a couple of books and been on TV a few times, I suppose that’s what happens: photographers and painters see you and think there’s something there.

However, it’s not a simple proposition. I’ve written a lot about particular times in my life and if I’ve done my job well, people think they know me. I also share certain aspects of my working life on social media. But as much as I reveal a lot about facets of my existence, the bigger and more meaningful things — the things that make me “me” — are private. My partner, my home, my close relationships, my family, my inner world … these are precious and I protect them fiercely.

Have you heard of “para-social relationships”? It’s a nightmare. Strangers see you on the television or internet and think they know you. People you’ve never met feel you’re friends. The term was coined by Donald Horton and R Richard Wohl in 1956 and, as you can imagine, the advent of social media has seen the phenomenon explode in both intensity and prevalence. Theorists have described para-social relationships as an “illusionary experience” that develops with exposure and every extra detail the media personality shares. Some influencers and celebrities are masterminds at maintaining these one-sided relationships. I find it disturbing and strange.

Something you learn very quickly if any part of your work occurs in the public eye is that you cannot control other people’s perceptions of you. When I finish a work of art, like a book or a story, I have to let it go. It floats away, down the river of life. It is not mine anymore. Others interpret it, imbue it with meaning. A film or a piece of music is usually received by an audience, but writing is different in that it requires the reader to meet the artist in the middle: they co-create the work, bringing themselves to it. This is all well and good. In fact, the more I accept it, the more I find it a source of delight. A harder lesson — one I keep having to relearn — is the same thing happens with your persona. My image and snippets of my personality get sent out into the river. People make interpretations. And I can go no more than halfway in guiding their judgements — often not even that far.

Which brings me back to saying no to portraits. I always long to ask the artist the question I can’t: what do you think you see here? I can’t ask that because the artist’s only true answer would be the portrait itself. So what is required of me is an extraordinary amount of trust and vulnerability. A good portrait is more than a likeness. For many great artists, capturing the sitter’s physical attributes is quite low on the list of priorities for a work. Saying yes to having my portrait painted means inviting the artist to divine the essence of me; to decide which aspects of my personality to privilege and which to hide. They create their interpretation and if the painting is then shown, an extra level of interpretation will take place between the viewer and the artwork. Where is the sitter in all this? Nowhere of import to the meaning-making process yet right in front of your eyes. What a trip.

I said yes to Colin Mac because he’s good, of course, but my trust in the artist’s talent wouldn’t normally be enough. Something in me has shifted lately. I’m 30 now. Lots of my friends are having children and our parents are ageing. The lonely life of the dedicated intellectual has not only become less appealing, the clichéd package has revealed itself to be a farce. Having artistic freedom at my desk each day feels pointless if there is no passion and laughter in my home at night. My heightened awareness of the preciousness of my close connections has thrown the opinions of the public into sharp relief. Why lose sleep over the thoughts of a stranger when I could be kissing my husband? Why stress about projecting an image of success when I should be calling my mum more?

I first met Col half a dozen years ago at some event, back when we both lived in Brisbane. Several months later, on exiting my shabby rental I noticed a painting of a blue dog had mysteriously appeared, nailed to the power pole outside our rusty front gate. I took a photo and posted it  on Instagram. Col was putting pictures of his signature blue dogs everywhere. My partner and I delighted in the find. Our home was marked. When we moved to Sydney, I commissioned Col to paint a blue dog we could take with us and it now hangs in our lounge room, a little piece of our home town. “Blue Dog” reminds me how far we’ve come in so few years. It reminds me that home is a place I can always return to, as much in my heart as in real time and space.

Seeing Col again was great. As we hung out and caught up, my nerves receded. He took reference photos of me and we chatted about all kinds of things. I told him about the novel I’d just finished writing and he told me about the digital art he’s been making and projecting onto buildings. He has a scruffy dog and I myself am in the market for a scruffy dog. I explained that my PhD is about the new “public interest” defence to defamation proceedings in Australia and we laughed about the Duttons and the Porters of the world embarrassing themselves.

Each of us contains multitudes. We are all a dozen roles. If someone were to paint your portrait, what would you wear?  Would you put on makeup? Would you clean up your home? I dried my hair properly but left my face bare. I wore jeans and a T-shirt. Col had to wait outside for five minutes while I tidied my apartment. It wasn’t enough time to create some sort of Architectural Digest vision, I can assure you. There were dishes in the sink, laundry drying in the corner and quotidian debris covered the dining table. I tried to look at  the scene through his eyes: what is here? What is missing? Who is this woman?

As he was leaving, I asked Col how he preferred to work. “With my writing, I don’t like to show anyone until it’s completely finished,” I said to him. “But if you want more feedback or to share your progress, that’s fine, too.” He replied that he was like me. I won’t hear from him for several months, and then he will show me the finished product.

He left and I felt surprisingly calm. What an honour. What an almighty privilege. I can see that clearly now, all because I put my ego on ice for a moment. Why had I been so anxious? I had presumed I was nervous about being misunderstood or misrepresented but, actually, I think I was nervous about being perceived as I truly am. What a thrill these next few months will be as my image makes its way down the river with Col. And perhaps one day it will make its way into the wide-open ocean of the world. It’s going to reveal something and conceal something else. It already has.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 34 of T Australia with the headline: “Sitting Target”

Remembering The Importance of Fallow Seasons in a Productivity-Obsessed World

With the current fervour for a post-pandemic snapback starting to feel like denialism, the author and legal activist Bri Lee wonders if we should pursue a fallow season for the mind rather than accelerated productivity.

Article by Bri Lee

Photography by Jamie Lee.

I am not a particularly spiritual person. Knowledge about my energies is more caffeine-based than metaphysical. Horoscopes mean about as much to me as this week’s Powerball numbers. If you want to take a punt on fate, then go with God. I’ll fight for your constitutional right to practise your beliefs but I’m yet to meet a yogi or preacher I’m swayed by. It’s not that I don’t care. I spend a lot of time pondering life’s big philosophical questions — who are we now and who should we be? — but I’m not sure the answers come from any one book or prophet.

Reincarnation, afterlife, ghosts and spirits – all seem as possible but improbable as intelligent life in space. We don’t know what happens when we go gentle into that good night, only what science tells us about energy never disappearing but instead transferring. Science doesn’t have all the answers either, of course, but the transferring thing is nice. I believe I’ve felt heaven on earth, and it was good food and wine with the person I love. I believe there are infinite variations of hell on earth, and most of us have lived through some of those, too.

Lately I’ve been wondering, though, if my inability to tune in to anything in particular is making it harder for me to shake the blues. The truth is, I’ve been having a bit of a tough time. My therapist says she’s got more “burnout” patients than ever before. Australian politicians have decided to “live with the virus” and we’re all acting like we’re in a post-Covid world — travelling, working, events — but tens of thousands are testing positive every week. You don’t need to be especially enlightened to see a lot of people are struggling. We’re trying to emulate our 2019 smiles and lifestyles, but we haven’t yet recovered. We’re not even sure what actually happened.

Every culture in the world has ancient traditions of humans attempting to alter their mental state: to escape, to get to a higher plane, to tap into something else. Peyote, alcohol, opiates, whatever. For me, it’s my work, which is my art, which is my life. When I’m reading and researching or drafting and editing, I lose sense of the present. I am transported out of the immediate and into some alternative place, either real or imagined. When the art is flowing, it is oblivion like no other.

The trouble is that at some point in the past six months, I forgot about the brakes. It’s funny to me that there are stores out there that will sell you a giant hunk of “calming power” rose quartz for $3,000. It’s less funny to have worked so much for so long that you’ve forgotten what your hobbies are. Last weekend I tried to do nothing for two days in a row (my partner says this is called a “week-end”) and had an anxiety attack on the second morning. The American writer Kurt Vonnegut said practising an art is a way “to make your soul grow”, but it doesn’t feel like that for me right now.

A lot has been written about burnout, but I was a sceptic. The cultural critic and journalist Anne Helen Petersen has written about millennials being the “burnout generation”, saying “the overarching thing is precarity”. You’re exhausted but you can’t afford to take a break. You feel like everything is going to slip away from you if you pause for even a weekend. Technology and social media make it worse, but removing them is neither an option nor a real solution. We worked from home on and off for two years during a global pandemic. The pandemic hasn’t stopped yet, but we’re back in the office. It makes sense that a lot of us are floundering.

An old Finnish friend of mine once remarked that there is something odd about Australians: that we have a rather static disposition — no high highs or low lows, not proper ones. She said it is because we don’t have real winters. During winter in Finland, it is dark for so long that people use lamps to treat seasonal affective disorder. Snow covers everything and the natural world goes dormant. We cannot understand the kaleidoscopic, cacophonous joy of new life in spring if we have not cried over the myriad old deaths in winter. 

The English author Katherine May talks about this in “Wintering” (2020), a book about “the transformative power of rest and retreat” (I must be going through something in my life if I’m apparently now open to a book sold using the term “transformative power”). It’s mostly too self-helpy for me, but what resonated is the idea that we have fallow times. It’s unfortunate that we can’t be in spring forever, sure, but the consolation is that no winter is permanent either. Renewal isn’t possible without this cycle.

Last month, I lost a dear pet. I adopted two rescue guinea pigs about five years ago: a father and son, named Louis and Eddie, with distinct personalities and preferences. The tricolour brindle, Eddie, passed away over Christmas, then Louis went downhill six months later. Louis was a black and white shaggy thing with a big attitude. I took him to the vet on a Friday afternoon because he’d lost some weight. One hour and thousands of dollars later, I was standing outside in the rain, alone with an empty box. 

He didn’t respond to treatment over the weekend. Then on Monday, at 8am, I was standing in line at airport security, preparing to travel to Melbourne for a day of meetings, when the vet called. They were kind enough to use the word “euthanasia” first, so I could continue with my cowardly euphemisms. 

“I have to ask you some difficult questions now, I’m sorry. Would you like to come over and be with him for this?”

I started crying and couldn’t stop. “I’m at the airport. I’m going interstate for work.”

“Would you like us to wrap the body for you, so you can come and collect him?”

“We don’t have a garden. I don’t know where I would bury him.”

“We can organise a cremation. This is the final difficult question: would you like us to perform an autopsy? Some people feel it might give them answers when we’re not certain why a pet has passed away.”

You’re allowed to laugh at that last part. Who knew you could get an autopsy for a guinea pig? Missing the meetings wasn’t an option so I went to Melbourne and I did my job, and when I finally got home late that night, my partner held me as I sobbed. I had loved something, a small friend, and I had let him die alone.

If Louis had passed away at home, what would we have done? Put his tiny body in one of the apartment building’s wheelie bins? Risk getting arrested by walking 20 minutes to the nearest park and digging a hole? I felt so far from nature. The miracles of the modern world have allowed me to work more and further. I eat imported winter vegetables for dinner and imported summer fruits for dessert. I plug podcasts into my ears when I go walking in the botanic gardens. My productivity was at an all-time high and I was miserable. 

My spring was a fake one. Some kind of artificial spring. A hothouse spring. I’d been so caught up in getting back to my pre-Covid life that I had forgotten that pre-Covid life was full of fallow times, too. You don’t have to be spiritual to know that happy doesn’t mean anything without sad. We mourn a lost life because we loved. 

Louis’s cage sat empty for a week before I shored myself up enough to take it apart and find someone to give it to. When I get home from work, I still go to where it was to say hello. This is normal. When autumn comes the leaves turn brown before they shed. Nature gives us stages and several months to work through them. I’m trying to listen and take it slow. Apparently this type of healing can’t be optimised or hacked. Imagine my frustration.

One of the common complaints about May’s book is that “wintering” — taking downtime, allowing oneself a fallow period — is inherently privileged. A single mum working two jobs probably doesn’t have the luxury of dedicated time to “reinforce the soul”. As Petersen says, burnout is the feeling that “you’ve hit the wall exhaustion-wise, but then have to scale the wall and just keep going”. 

These extremes are not burdens I carry. I have a manageable mortgage and no children. The pressure I’ve been feeling to work and work and work hasn’t been out of true financial necessity. It has come from an insecurity about my value in the world. The jam-packed schedules are shields against difficult adult questions — big philosophical questions I thought I was willing to sit with even if they brought discomfort. 

Mine is not true burnout because it is within my power and means to slow myself down. The challenge is to define priorities in life that aren’t only about productivity. For a long time I put this type of thing in the woo-woo basket of spirituality and nonsense, but then a small death and an anxiety attack made me take a look at the person I was becoming. I’m not saying I’m going to buy a giant hunk of rose quartz. Maybe I just need to start with weekends. Wish me luck. 

If you are experiencing burnout or depression, seek help from Lifeline (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636).

Should You Include Your Children in Your Carbon Footprint Calculations?

In her first column for T Australia, the author and legal advocate Bri Lee confronts a new ethical dilemma facing young people.

Article by Bri Lee

Bri LeeDigital Illustration: Aleksandra Beare

We may not inherit the sins of our fathers, but we do get their carbon emissions. When I saw a pram on fire outside Parliament House in August, I felt a shock of recognition: that’s what it feels like. That’s what’s at stake. That’s how dire it is. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had just released a report saying that it was a “code red for humanity”.

We are already seeing the catastrophic symptoms of the climate emergency in the increased ferocity of natural disasters like bushfires, floods and droughts. And the IPCC science proves that humans — especially since the Industrial Revolution — have warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land. Some of the predicted rise in sea levels is now irreversible for centuries to millenniums.

The pram on fire isn’t just some general stand-in symbol for “the future”. The report was shocking for young people trying to plan their future and family. Writing for the youth-focused news site Pedestrian. TV, the journalist Elfy Scott said: “The morning after the IPCC report was published, my group chats with friends began flooding with distressed messages about changes to life plans and anxieties about having children if this is the future we’ll be forcing them to endure.” She cited a study in the journal Climatic Change in which 96.5 per cent of respondents aged 27 to 45 said they were “very” or “extremely concerned” about “the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world”. A global study published in The Lancet in 2021 found that four in 10 people aged 16 to 25 were “hesitant to have children” as a result of the climate crisis.

In response to the IPCC report, Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed “the developing countries of the world” for the majority of emissions and hung his hopes on “technology” saving the day. But in October, ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, he changed tack, announcing a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. The problem is that his government can’t actually articulate a plan to reach the new target.

Back in May, the Lowy Institute reported that six in 10 Australians think we should be taking steps to address climate change right now “even if this involves significant costs”. But there’s a problem with public education — apparently people don’t actually know what it might cost them to make a difference. In an Ipsos survey of more than 21,000 individuals from 30 countries, about 70 per cent of the respondents said they knew what actions would most effectively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Most of them were wrong.

People chose “recycling as much as possible” or “buying energy from renewable sources” as the two most effective changemakers for people living in wealthy nations, but these actions don’t have nearly as much environmental impact as we’d like to think. The response people chose least was, in fact, the most significant change we can make: having one less child. Rethink the burning pram. When wealthy people reproduce, they disproportionately exacerbate today’s climate emergency.

Research conducted by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that between 1990 and 2015 the wealthiest one per cent of the world’s population created more than twice the CO2 emissions of the poorest 50 per cent combined. Australia’s per capita emissions are among the highest in the world. This flips the script of “developing countries” being to blame. The real question is whether we place child- bearing in an “other” category of moral inquisition. Going without a car is the second-most impactful thing a person in a wealthy country can choose to do for the planet. But owning a car is a choice of finance, convenience and status; having one less child is likely a matter of the heart, family and identity.

Some philosophers argue that it is faulty rationale to attribute a child’s carbon emissions to their parents rather than each individual being responsible for their own consumption. And so science presents us with a deep philosophical question: is each of us responsible for the actions of our children? Do we take credit for them? Do we accept liability?

A parent may choose to distance themselves from the environmental impacts of their child, but their child cannot opt out of a planet on fire. In May, Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled in Sharma v Minister for the Environment that the minister has a duty of care to Australia’s children not to exacerbate the impact of the climate crisis. An extension of the Vickery coalmine in New South Wales would potentially see an extra 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide shot into the atmosphere and the court found that given the rather hellish state of things, approving the extension may amount to negligence. The decision has been appealed, of course, but for now the precedent stands. These legal proceedings were brought by eight teenagers with an 86-year-old nun acting as their litigation representative.

Bri Lee, the award-winning author and former judge’s associate, known for probing institutional — and personal — flaws. Photography by Saskia Wilson.

“They’re a credit to you,” we often say to the parents of good kids. Do the parents of these teenagers take credit for raising changemakers? Do they think the activism of their offspring lightens their own carbon footprint? I wonder what these eight teenagers think about the tonnes of emissions they produce each year, and those of their parents; intergenerational credits, intergenerational liabilities. Are they less likely to become parents themselves, and is it because of the child’s footprint or because they don’t want to bring a child into a burning world?

Another compelling argument to consider in the “one less child” debate is that a relatively small number of companies are responsible for the majority of global emissions. Getting individuals to stress about solar panels and keep-cups (and fertility!) is a good distraction from the responsibilities of big business. In 2017, the Carbon Majors Report showed that just 100 fossil fuel companies were the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. So, do we wash our hands of it and say the companies are responsible?  In 2019, The Guardian asked 20 of the worst polluters about their responsibility; of the eight that replied, the report says, “Some argued that they were not directly responsible for how the oil, gas or coal they extracted were used by consumers.” That old chestnut: supply and demand unencumbered by policy.

So, what do you think? Was there a moment in your past (or perhaps your future) when you were deciding whether or not to try to have a child (it could be your first or your fifth) and something like “legacy” came into the equation? When you think of the word “legacy” in connection to the next generation, do you consider your legacy to be the things you leave for the next generation, or is your legacy the people of the next generation? You may want to reply “both”, but the choices we face as citizens and parents (or potential parents) often pull us in opposite directions.

It’s easy to imagine how extraordinarily difficult it would be for a family with multiple kids to choose to make the environmental choice of going without a car. It’s also easy to understand how caring for a child might feel like a commitment to caring for the future itself. We are, ultimately, pulled in all different directions. But the average Australian leaves a devastating environmental legacy and the young people inheriting this situation don’t have the luxury of getting philosophical about it because the government keeps fighting them. Just imagine what Morrison — who said the protests out the front of Parliament House in August weren’t “the Australian way” — thinks of those eight teenagers suing for their future.

Perhaps what needs to shift is the notion that a legacy can only go in one direction. What if, instead of leaving a legacy for the next generation, we spoke about creating a legacy with them? Is it so radical to suggest we actually listen to the young people we claim to “provide” for? What if those eight teenagers have started a living legacy that the rest of us — regardless of age — can both take from and add to? Can’t we imagine living in a country with policies that mean the best thing a person can do as a parent is also the best thing they can do as a citizen? Wouldn’t it be great if we could hand over a planet on which a young person’s decision about whether or not to have kids was actually about heart, family and identity instead of carbon footprint and the risk of extreme weather events?

As I write this, I’ve just learned that the Federal Court has heard the latest arguments for Sharma v Minister for the Environment. Lawyers cited cases that determined who was negligent and responsible for preventable asbestos-related deaths. Question is, do we have to wait for irretrievable devastation to be wrought before we can ask for accountability? The court will deliver a judgment in the coming months and then whoever loses will appeal and eventually the issue will go to the High Court. Let’s not wait for that day to decide what legacy we want to create, together, now.

A version of this article appears in print in our fourth edition, Page 45 of T Australia with the headline:
“Kids These Days”
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Letter From the Editor, Issue 4

Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief Katarina Kroslakova shares why Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo was the perfect choice for our cover.

Article by Katarina Kroslakova

T Australia Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Katarina Kroslakova.

The Year That Was.

Was it crazy to launch a magazine in the midst of a global pandemic? Probably. Photo shoots have been arranged and rearranged, trips postponed, and restaurant reviews put on hold. But the challenges have resulted in some of my favourite stories and images that have appeared in the pages of T Australia over the past year, among them the portraits that accompany this issue’s special feature, “Tomorrow’s Heroes”. The shoot, comprising six exceptional advocates and innovators, spread across three states, each with their own Covid-19 restrictions, had to be done remotely via Zoom and FaceTime. But our ingenious portrait photographer, Kelly Geddes, was not deterred.

Kelly (the daughter of the beloved baby photographer Anne Geddes) had each one of her subjects wear the same white T-shirt (from the Australian label Nobody Denim) and after carefully composing each scene, she used a camera to capture the images on her computer screen. The files were then hand-printed from a digital enlarger and toned in a darkroom as silver gelatin prints. Timeless yet tactile, intimate yet remote, the result is a series of black-and- white images that trace the process from digital to analogue and back again.

The accompanying profiles, written by Jen Nurick, are equally captivating. There’s the dairy farmer Sallie Jones, who turned a family tragedy into a business that’s changing fortunes in her community. And the inventor Macinley Butson, who, at 16 years old, created a device to reduce radiation exposure during cancer treatment. Though the fields of our subjects differ, each is creating a legacy that will improve things for those who come after them.

T Australia Issue #4 is on sale now.

This issue, we welcome the award-winning author Bri Lee to the T Australia team. She kicks off her debut column with a sobering piece on family planning (“Kids These Days”). It’s a thoughtful take on legacy, the theme of this issue, which weaves in and out of our feature stories. In some ways, legacy feels like an old-fashioned notion; it’s not often spoken of, perhaps because it means confronting our own passing. But given our culture’s fixation on the now, I think there is value in considering what we want for those who’ll pick up where we left off. Our cover star, the Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo, is another young achiever. But at the age of 32, he’s had to confront the possibility that his legacy might not be a world title — that it might be something else entirely. I first met Dan in Melbourne after the Australian Grand Prix about seven years ago, while I was writing for the Financial Review. Cheeky and self-deprecating but also honest and determined, he opens himself up to our interviewer, Emma Pegrum, holding nothing back.

I’ve wanted his smile on the cover of T Australia since day one. But Dan’s a busy man and securing him for a shoot at the McLaren Technology Centre in Surrey, England, was a project 12 months in the making (to see just how charming the guy was on set, take a look at our behind-the-scenes video at Emma was lucky enough to speak to Dan at the time of his win at the Italian Grand Prix — a much-needed triumph after a tough few years. As expected, he had a lot to say.

Publishing in a pandemic is no picnic but when confronted with restrictions, the T Australia team has come up with possibilities again and again — and for that, I’m immensely grateful. And to you, thank you. The support we have received from readers over the past year has been overwhelming. So much so, we’ve decided to ramp up production and we’ll be releasing the magazine every two months in 2022 (for even more T Australia, you can sign up to our newsletter). For now, though, we’ll be making the most of the silly season — as I hope you will, too.

Katarina Kroslakova — Publisher, Editor-in-Chief

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, on sale now in newsagents and online via our T Australia Shop.

Is it Finally Time We Changed our Relationship with Exercise?

To train or not to train, that is the question, writes our style columnist Christopher Riley.

Article by Christopher Riley

Working out is so passé. Going for a run, hitting the gym, swimming laps – all this used to come under the banner of exercise. We used to fit our workouts in around our work schedule or family life, and just got it done. These days, things are very different. Now, we train. In the age of social media, exercise has gone from something we did, to something we talk about.

For someone who grew up playing sport – always on the run from one practice to another – this suited me just fine. Once I entered the world of work and weekends were no longer dedicated to competition, I replaced sport with training. Every session was the same. I’d turn up at the gym with my head down and my attention focussed. I’d find a spot in the corner with plenty of space, put on my headphones and begin. If anyone approached, I’d give off just enough stink eye to let them know this was no social visit. (After all, I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to train.) A protein shake would follow before I’d do it all over again, sometimes on the same day.

Having just spent three months in which I have had to rethink my daily pilgrimage to the gym, I’ve begun asking myself why I do this – for what exactly am I training? Athletes – and by that I mean those of us whose job it is to play pro sport – they train. And the reason is simple: they do so in order to perform the best they can when game day comes around. What about the rest of us? There are no legions of fans waiting to watch our every move, no commentators obsessing over our mistakes. Without the outlet of game day, many of us find ourselves in a perpetual cycle of training: dressed constantly in activewear, we walk around with aches and pains, either en route to the gym or coming from it. We have all these muscles and nothing to do with them.

And there’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with this. If that’s what you enjoy, do you. But I suspect the cult of training and the rise of muscle dysmorphia, particularly among men, over the past decade is not a coincidence. Defined as unhealthy obsession with gaining weight and muscularity, a recent study found that muscle dysmorphia affects 22 per cent of men aged 18-24. In light of this alarming trend, training becomes less about self improvement and more about self flagellation.

With the constant comparison provided by social media, it’s easy to see why. But in order to avoid such a path, I’d encourage us all to switch off the auto pilot for a second and ask ourselves why we do the things we do. This could mean exercise or anything else that occupies our time and energy. Is it about the thing itself – the training – or is it about something else – the game?

For me, it’s the latter. It’s about preserving my mental health and finding joy in mastering new skills. So, if that’s the case, the next logical question would be, is my mental health improved or impinged by spending daily hours in such a punishing environment? To find out, I replaced my serious sweat sessions with something a little less restrictive. To start with, I went outside. Making the park my gym, I ran, did pull ups and practised yoga in the sun. I swapped timing my rest periods with aimless wandering around the park until I was ready for my next set.

If I didn’t feel like training – sorry exercising – I simply didn’t. And guess what… nothing happened. I didn’t suddenly put on 30 pounds or grow horns. Who knew?

This is the ideal time to be asking these types of questions. Because, if there is anything good to come of the pandemic it’s that it has afforded us the opportunity to rethink our priorities. Let’s not waste it. After all, there is a time and a place to train; when life calls for it, switch on the tunnel vision and dial up the focus. But, that day does not come every day. Sometimes, the braver act might be not training at all.

Tackle a Receding Hairline and Baldy Go No Longer

Our style columnist, Christopher Riley, weighs in on the conversation men are afraid to have.

Article by Christopher Riley

Photography by Amir Esrafili.

I have a confession to make: despite my best efforts, I have not been entirely honest with you. In one of my recent columns, I told you that despite the current fallout between me and my hairline I would not be taking preventative action. I believe my exact words were that such measures would constitute “too much effort and money to reverse a train that seems very intent on reaching its destination”.

And I really believed myself. The truth is, I’ve known for a few years now that my hair and I were on borrowed time. While I’m not entirely thrilled at the prospect, I’ve had time to come to terms with it and always thought I would take it like a man; a stoic, hairless man. There was even a part of me that relished the thought. While I have always prided myself on my appearance – after all, I am a style columnist, right? – I looked forward to a time in which I might shed my narcissistic tendencies and become a more enlightened man. And if not enlightened, then at the very least more streamlined.

My mind was made up. Embrace the bald, become wiser and perhaps enter a few amateur swim meets. Simple. But recently, I’ve felt my opinion start to change. Because, as I wrote those words, a quiet voice within me asked, What if you… didn’t?

“I’m listening…,” I responded.

Bear with me here, it said (my internal dialogues are civilised affairs). What if, instead, you used modern science to combat your hair loss? What if you actually did something about it, rather than sitting back and letting it happen? I mean, we can literally put a man on the moon, regrowing a few hairs can’t be that hard, can it?

Of course, I was already aware of such remedies, but always figured them a bit… lame? As if going that route would somehow be either a sign of weakness, or me being ungrateful; I should handle my dissatisfaction like a man, I thought. You see, this is another affliction that seems to predominantly affect men: to feel aggrieved by a situation while simultaneously doing nothing about it. Unmanaged dissatisfaction is about as inherently male as the Y chromosome. When faced with a physical trait women are unsatisfied with, most take action. This might mean a surgical procedure or just investing in a good routine. It takes vulnerability to accept that “fault”, and bravery to do something about it. Us men on the other hand, we sit back and let life smack us in the face. Because we are men!

It’s for this reason that when we see a man as free and uninhibited as Lil Nas X, we feel threatened. He is unapologetically himself, wearing what he wants, acting the way he wants and making the type of music he wants, regardless of what society expects of him. And, most importantly, he seems pretty darn happy doing so. We see this type of freedom and become indignant. You can’t do that! We cry. You can’t wear that! Go back inside your cage like the rest of us.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Photography by Amir Esrafili.

I wasn’t surprised to see a recent study that said a whopping 81 per cent of men feel insecure and self conscious about their skin. But what I’d be even more curious to know is how many of those dissatisfied men were doing something about it? I’d bet my disappearing hairline very few indeed. Because we are men!

So, after I had made my decision, a simple google search confirmed there are a number of reputable companies engaging in hair regrowth. Once I found the one for me, there was a brief back and forth with a doctor to assess my needs, before we settled on a treatment plan that involved a daily pill as well as a mouth spray aimed at promoting a certain hormone. The shampoo didn’t come as part of the treatment plan but was suggested as an additional bonus. Using the unbeatable logic of “Go Hard or Go Home”, I told them to add the shampoo to my order and let’s get this show on the road.

After week one of my treatment plan, things took a turn. I found myself talking to my hair like a gardener talks to their plants. You got this big guy; I’d offer as words of encouragement. Keep pushing! Now, the medical community appears to be on the fence about this method but speaking for myself, it is recommended. As for the progress, I literally started taking the meds a few weeks ago so it’s hard to tell. It’s also, frankly, besides the point. Maybe my locks will grow back. Maybe they won’t. But, whatever happens, I’m not going down without a fight.

I didn’t actually intend to tell anyone I was undergoing treatment. I figured I had never discussed my anxieties with my mates before, so why start now? Keep it to yourself, I told myself. That’s when I heard it, that voice again: What if you… didn’t? What if you took this moment to put your column where your supposedly woke mouth is and write about it instead? Why don’t you share your experience and your vulnerability with other men in the hope of shedding some of these absurd stigmas that we wear around our necks like badges of honour? Well, there’s a thought.

Now, I told myself I would make this column a Covid-free place but I can’t help but leave you with some pandemic ponderings. These past few years it has felt at times like we are living on pause mode; like we’re sat outside the amusement park waiting for the rides to come back on. The longer we sit here, the more we long to jump on that merry go round. I don’t know about you guys, but when the show does eventually resume, I’m no longer settling for mediocrity. I’m heading straight for the tallest, scariest, rollercoaster going. With a full head of hair.