My sister is two years older than me, and has yet to find a single grey hair. Yup – she is 37, with the hair of a 27 year old. I on the other hand have had to accept that the greys are beginning to come far thicker and faster than I would like, and have been highlighting my hair to counteract this for a couple of years now.
On telling me that her hairdresser was impressed at her enduring brunette locks, we joked that it was probably down to the differences in our children. Where her daughter is never more content than snuggling up in her pyjamas and playing babies, my son has a more active take on life. He is the kind of child who sticks his fingers into anything he finds, before asking what it is. Mud, poo, badger dens, plug sockets… So where Lucy has spent the last few years getting her ‘Pinterest’ on, with carefully made craft projects, baking and snuggling on the sofa watching Frozen for the millionth time, I have been running around the house, literally trying to catch my son as he launches himself from the highest point in the room he can get to.
Lucy never got around to baby proofing. I had to put a lock on the toilet. And the washing machine. I once thought I’d lost my son, eventually finding him inside the tumble dryer.
Lucy would trust her daughter with a pot of glitter. Give it to my boy and within two minutes the whole room would be coated. But don’t worry – when we hit the teenage years I will get it so much easier than her, I have no doubt!
We joked about this, but it got me thinking about the impact our lives have on the way we naturally look, and what our perception of normal really is. We are bombarded with ‘aspirational’ images, mostly involving youthful, beautiful, slim women. And in response to this there is a beauty industry worth billions. Grey hairs? Buy some dye. Wrinkles? Expensive face creams, or even surgical procedures can help. Got cellulite? Spend 3 hours a day rubbing creams into your thighs. Above a size 10? Buy these diet books. We spend hundreds of pounds a year trying to change the way we look, preserve our youth and make ourselves conform to an idea of beauty that seems to be universally accepted.
Lucy and I met a wonderful woman on a six-hour train journey this week. She has been helping a close family member through cancer, and was talking about the rehabilitation process. She explained that her mother had been asked to take a picture of her with hair so that she could choose a wig in order that she could look ‘normal’ after her treatment. Her mum (who sounds absolutely kick-ass) couldn’t think of anything more silly, and instead insisted on trying on as many wigs as possible, seeing it as an opportunity to match her hair to her personality and try numerous outlandish hairdos.
The craziest thing about this story however, was the reaction of the people helping her through this process, who apparently really struggled with the way she embraced the situation. When women have been through cancer treatments, much of the rehabilitation is based around making women look ‘normal’. Costly prosthetics, risky breast reconstructions and wigs, all mask the journey that the survivors have been on. For some women, these are the perfect solutions and absolutely the right thing for them to do. For other women however, like the mum in this story, she didn’t want to hide her journey. She faced her own mortality, went through months of gruelling chemotherapy, long hospital stays, numerous surgeries and she beat it. She felt like a goddam superhero, and wasn’t interested in hiding this fact.
What is it that makes people assume that women will want to hide the journey that they have been on? Why do we hide the grey hairs, the wrinkles, trying to pretend that we are not the wise women that we truly are? Lucy and I have been really lucky to have met with some beauty and fashion bloggers through our work. There’s one in particular we have met several times, and there is no better word to describe her than ‘fabulous’. She has a confidence that exudes from every pore. She wears figure-hugging outfits that show off her curves, and posts risqué pictures of herself to her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. She experiments with outrageous hair colours (with matching eyebrows) and I have never seen her not look utterly amazing. She also has a way of spreading this confidence to other people. You can’t be in her presence and not feel just a little bit more fabulous for it, like you’ve been coated in glitter.
The unusual thing about her is that, far from trying to look like the aspirational, young models put there to make us want to hide our true selves, she embraces everything that makes her unique, and that is what makes her fabulous. Her tattoos show her individuality, her choice of hair colour reflects her bubbly personality. Far from hiding her curves, she embraces them and shows them off to the world, because she is utterly (and rightly) proud of the person she is. She is owning her individuality, and is so much the better for it.
There is no doubt in my mind that taking ownership of things that may make us uncomfortable inevitably leads to a calmness that cannot be achieved by hiding our true selves. I remember hearing Caitlin Moran explaining in an interview that her brother’s friend once walked in on her, stark naked on her front, straddled by her small child, squeezing a spot on her bum. Rather than run away and pretend it never happened, she took to Twitter to share the story, where she was met with lots of other women taking the opportunity to share their own embarrassing moments. And guess what? I love her all the more for knowing this about her. Far from being appalled, I think she is brave, normal, down to earth and a real role model for women everywhere. She owned her own quirks and that enables other women to do the same.
The reality is, I may have more grey hair than my older sister (not bitter AT ALL), but maybe that is because of the different journeys our lives have taken us on thus far. The wrinkles by my eyes demonstrate all the times I have laughed until I’ve cried, grinned with pure joy and shared silliness with my son. The freckles on my face are like a map of the places I’ve visited, the days spent relaxing in the sun, exploring new countries and swimming in (warm) seas. My wobbly bits have developed over years of meals out with friends and sharing wine and takeaways on cosy nights in. I cant look at the scars on my wrist without thinking of my brief attempts to learn to snowboard, or my wonky nose without thinking of jumping off the wardrobe as a kid after encouragement from my sister (I know, I know, I can see where my son gets it from too, and I do have new found sympathy for my poor parents!). The point is, my body is a representation of the journey I have been on to get to this point in my life. If my face was flawless, my body slimmer and my hair naturally glossy and grey-free, perhaps my life would have been an awful lot duller than it has been so far. It is for this reason that I will be trying to own my imperfections with pride, because each one is a physical memento of good times, laughter and love, which is surely the point of growing older.
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