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How does the way you look after yourself differ from what your mum or even your granny did? Three readers find out, learning some valuable lessons along the way
ake three generations of women from an average British family: Isobel, 84 (above right), interior designer Jackie, 58 (above left), and account manager Hayley, 28 (middle), all from Surrey. Put them in a room with our Features Director Danielle Hine (and plenty of tea and biscuits!), and get them talking about their attitudes to health and wellbeing. Add a big splash of laughter, a huge serving of honesty and sprinkle with lots of love throughout, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for some serious life lessons.
Let’s start with eating habits…
Isobel: I grew up in the North East of England during the Second World War. Everything was rationed, and there were no fizzy drinks. You grew your own vegetables and filled up on bread and potatoes. Our mothers even made their own bread.
Jackie: You were organic without even trying, Mum!
I: Portion control came naturally, too. It wasn’t about what you were or weren’t supposed to eat – it was about what was actually available.
Were attitudes to food much the same for you growing up, Jackie?
J: As my parents were the post-war generation, our meals were healthy and simple – meat and two veg. There was no junk food, and you never ate out – unless you were at a wedding or a christening. As a child, the only time we had a family meal out was on a long car journey, when we stopped at motorway services.
I: Eating out was a treat back then. Now it’s harder to follow a healthy diet – there are so many places to go and more temptation.
J: My generation came of age during the convenience/fast-food revolution, though, which made it more difficult to be healthy.
What about you, Hayley?
Hayley: Mine is an 80% good, balanced diet and 20% treats. About four years ago I found out I had a wheat intolerance, so I cut it out. I saw a nutritionist, who steered me towards eating fewer carbs and processed food. [Personal trainer] Joe Wicks’ Instagram has taught me a lot about nutrition, too.
J: Hayley has helped us both become more nutritionally aware and open-minded. It’s almost come full circle: in Mum’s day, everything was low-sugar and fresh, with no additives – and now Hayley’s generation are into all that. More interesting ingredients have become readily available, too. So, for instance, I’d never heard of quinoa before Hayley introduced me to it!
It’s not just new food ingredients – the fitness world has exploded, too, right?
I: When I was young, getting fit happened naturally. I had to walk everywhere because we had one car, which my husband drove to work. When Jackie’s younger brothers were babies, I’d have a weekly four-mile round trip to the doctor – pushing a huge Silver Cross pram – so they could be weighed. And when all the children were at different schools, I’d have to walk to drop them off and collect them from different places. I still do a lot of walking now, as I don’t have a car.
J: I bet you didn’t know anything about core strength back then, though?
I: No, there was none of that sort of information in magazines at the time. But now I do classes called Fit For Life, which are all about stretching and, yes, strengthening your core. I do it so I won’t have trouble getting up from seats, or the loo.
Jackie, was it all leg warmers and Jane Fonda aerobics for you as a young woman?
J: I had an active childhood – I did ballet from the age of seven to 15 and, like Mum, I’d walk or cycle everywhere. The Jane Fonda aerobics trend became a thing after I got married [in 1979]. Ooh, there was a lot of Spandex in those days! I had the really high-cut leotards, a bubble perm, leg warmers…
H: You should see the photos!
J: I’m not a gym-goer now, though – my job involves a lot of running around, so I rarely sit still. I also have to walk our dog, Gigi, and I live in a townhouse, which has three flights of stairs, so I’m always going up and down.
Hayley, what’s your approach?
H: I’m lucky, as my work organises lots of fitness activities at lunchtime. So I do regular yoga, a weekly hour-long walk up the hills near my office in Surrey, and there’s Bootcamp on Thursdays. The fact that Mum and Grandma were always active while I was growing up has set a really good example.
What do you think of the obsession with fitness tracking?
J: If it encourages people who don’t do much to do more, that’s great. But I often think: ‘Are you spending all your time studying what you’re doing instead of actually doing it?’
I: I think they should just get on with it!
H: Some of my friends do fitness competitions† and they post their #fitspiration pictures on Instagram. It feels as though there’s constant peer pressure. So Mum and Grandma are probably right: it’s not always a good thing.
Let’s talk about periods – a topic that’s finally starting to lose its taboo.
I: I remember going to my grandmother’s when I was young and thinking: ‘What are all those little squares hanging on the washing line?’ They were like terry towelling face cloths with loops. I later found out women hooked them into their knickers when they had their period. My mother vaguely touched on the topic when I was 11, but I learned more about it from the girls at school. Tampons appeared on the scene after I’d had two children. They changed my life: I could do things such as play badminton and go swimming.
Jackie, was it still a no-go area when you were growing up?
J: It was a bit taboo. But (looks at Isobel) you used to tell me funny old wives’ tales, such as when you had your period you weren’t allowed to wash your hair.
I: [Laughs] Apparently, putting your head down under the tap would make you bleed more! But I wouldn’t say it was a no-go topic for Jackie and me – did I give you advice?
J: Yes, you did, actually – you explained how to use a tampon. So then, when I became a mother, I made sure that Hayley was properly informed.
What about you, Hayley?
H: When we were pre-teens, we had special classes in which our teachers talked through what would happen. I’d already had ‘the chat’ with Mum, so I didn’t feel worried or scared. I’m thankful that we could talk honestly – it really helps break the stigma.
No doubt you’re all thankful that nowadays we’re more open about female health checks, too?
I: Smear tests and breast screenings started in my day. I’ve never been frightened to go to the doctor. I don’t put things off. And I didn’t shy away from talking about illness.
J: That attitude was passed on to me, so I had regular health check-ups and did breast checks. I actually found a lump in 2016 and was shocked when it turned out to be breast cancer. I’ve had a healthy lifestyle, and I’m not overweight, so it taught me that all women should be vigilant – which I’ve stressed to Hayley.
H: It’s definitely made me aware about having regular checks.
J: As well as cancer treatment, I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. But during that process they found a spinal tumour, which means I’ll need to have cancer treatment for the rest of my life to manage that. So far, I’m doing fine.
How did you all cope?
H: When Mum first told me about her diagnosis, I was, understandably, terrified. You hear the word cancer and immediately think the worst, but we sat and talked and I asked loads of questions. Mum being so calm and practical about the whole situation made it less of a sensitive issue and we can talk about it openly now. She wasn’t afraid to show us her reconstructive surgery, which made it seem less scary, too.
J: I didn’t want anyone to think that I looked like I’d been patched up. In fact, I was pleased with my surgery. My doctor asked if he could use my case in a medical article, and I was happy to share my experience with others. I think we’ve all come through it very well because we’ve been so open about it. As Hayley said, that’s been the key to making it seem less frightening.
‘Be honest with your family about everything you’re going through. I was a shy child, so I’m grateful to my mum and grandma for helping me to be more open. Mum would just know if I was upset, no matter how hard I tried to hide it, and she’d make me talk about it. I always felt better afterwards. And I’m inspired by Grandma’s openness and honesty, too.’
‘I learned from my mother to be candid about my health, even the taboo topics. And Hayley reminds me to look after myself – her generation are more conscious of things like being mindful – and to spend time on pampering and mental health, which is as important as exercise and good nutrition.’
‘The younger generation are more open with their families and friends, which is great. But Hayley’s generation have so much pressure put on them – they can’t live as simply as I did. And they’re always so busy Facebooking, Instagramming and Tweeting, I’m surprised they get anything done! A sit down for a cup of tea and a face-to-face chat would be much better.’
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Interviews Danielle Hine Photography Matthew Walder