…that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau.
When I was four my parents took me to a show on ice. We were sitting in the front row, and there’s only one thing I can still remember. A man in a sparkly costume came whooshing across the ice towards me really fast, leant over the barrier and said “hello curly top”, then whooshed away.
My mother told me that a few days later I said to her “Mummy, look at my curls bobbing about on my head like little brown mice.” She explained to me that no, she couldn’t see any curls, just lovely hair that made me look pretty. But in spite of the mirrors in our house I knew I had curls, because the man could see them.
As I grew, this sturdy belief that my body was what I wanted it to be served me well. We lived in the country at a time when there were far less cars and I had complete freedom to roam unchecked as both my parents were working long hours. I ran miles through the woods, climbed trees, fell out of them, swam in the river, let my bike freewheel down hills, daring myself to take corners with no brakes. I was without question invincible.
At around twelve this glorious faith in myself began to evaporate when I realised that there were rules about how you should look. (I was lucky I had so long, today’s children are faced with this much sooner). I discovered the sturdy legs that had carried me faithfully on many adventures were ugly. I knew this as my mother sympathised with how I must feel about my big knees, solid calves, and most shameful of all, thick ankles. And how stoically she trudged from one shoe shop to another whilst I tried to force my big, wide feet into pretty shoes.
As for my face, what a mess that was turning out to be – a Roman nose with a significant bump, just like my father. And sucking my thumb had pushed my teeth forward to expose their tombstone size and shape. The little brown curls now never did what I wanted them to, however much I forced them.
In time, and to my amazement, boys sometimes took me out. Some would leap out of their car to open the door on my side and my heart would turn over in shame as I had no choice but to thrust my legs out first, and they would see… (Why I thought they hadn’t already noticed before they asked me out I don’t know.) And then at some point I would laugh, and my teeth would show. There were whole evenings of worry over which part of me might be disappointing the most.
In due course I accepted that at least no one was actually shrieking and running at the sight of me, but it seemed to me that was as good as it would get. All the failures to conform were deeply rooted, and it was an endless journey towards an unachievable goal – being acceptably beautiful. If I wore this the size of my legs wouldn’t show so much, if I did my makeup like that the bump on my nose would be less obvious, and as I got older, if I could just loose some weight round my hips…
However did we get taken in by this charade? It’s nuts isn’t it, and in our hearts we all know that, but our heads lead us to conform, to belong. How many women, and men, have faced the uncertainty of feeling like they just don’t look good enough. For who will love us if we don’t?
I was thinking about this recently, looking back across my life to people I’ve loved, and what images of them sprang to mind now. I thought of my first boyfriend, whose name rhymed with Tin God, which is what my Grandma christened him. I saw the bright blue of his sweater as we ran down a hill with his dog, laughing, and felt his arms around me, my face buried in his shoulder and the smell of his skin. And it’s the feeling I recall, the wondrous happy feeling, not what he looked like.
And I remembered the thirtieth birthday party of my lovely friend Jane, the warm summer evening, the throng of happy, noisy people, and above it all her glorious laughter. Isn’t it a gift to the world when someone laughs without restraint. We haven’t seen each other for years now, but I only have to think of her to hear the sound of her voice, head thrown back, bursting into laughter. And it makes me smile at happy memories shared.
I thought of sitting in the garden of my parents home with my Dad, who was only a year older than I am now. He’d always been a strong man, straight and tall, active, sometimes impatient with those who were not. But now he had cancer, was frail and weak, and with remarkable grace was simply waiting to die.
He sat looking out across his flowers and I noticed the thin, bruised skin on the backs of his hands. Instinctively I reached out to stroke one of them, which was unexpected for both of us, we weren’t a family who touched. He smiled at my concern and brushed it away, “it’s just age, they’re old hands”. I felt such a rush of love, recognising in that fragile skin his utter vulnerability, and how brave he was in the face of it. When I look at my own hands now sometimes I see his.
After conforming to what I thought was expected of me and my appearance for so many years, I find now that it just doesn’t matter, it’s not the stuff that memories are made of. Here and there, yes, my mother was a beauty who adored clothes, and images easily come to mind of the many times she looked like she’d just stepped out of Vogue. And she instilled a love of dressing up in me. But it was just one striking aspect of who she was, not the whole picture.
And I know that what matters most to me now is how it feels being with people, what we bring to each other, and what we share. It has nothing to do with a slender waist, luxuriant hair or stunning shoes. We are each, in our own unique and beautiful way, the sum total of so much more than we’ve been led to believe.