The scent of Ambre Solaire sun oil mingling with ripe fruit is one of my earliest memories of a childhood spent on a farm overlooking fields of black currants at the foot of the Sussex Downs. Resurrected by a week of hazy dusky warmth, a heady breath of amber, cream, warm skin and summer heat, which my mother applied at regular intervals to her bikini clad body before sinking back onto the sling of a faded orange Lafuma sunlounger. As children, we found this a baffling ritual and did our best to disrupt the process – gleefully fishing for tiny frogs and snails in the pond at her side, or scurrying upstairs to pilfer the contents of the forbidden makeup drawer, emerging triumphant with faces mask like, caked in Revlon “Bisque Beige” lips a garish coral orange.
We found the lack of maternal attention frustrating but I’m not sure we ever really questioned what my mother gained from these sessions spent reclining, basted in an orange oil that attracted midges, turning her body into a liquid coated fly strip as she basked. By the time my sister and I reached our teenage years in the mid 1980s, far from questioning the practice, we had joined the ranks of “sunbathers” whose pale bodies lined up in rows along the banks of our local lido, sardine like, raising ourselves and dipping gingerly into the pool when the heat became unbearable, leaving in our wake a trademark slick on the waters’ surface. My mother – and my contemporaries, taught us that “Tanning” and “Dieting” were as much a part of normal life for a woman as attending school and we focused our bright young minds keenly on the wisdom gleaned from dog eared copies of “Jackie” magazine. From this we gleaned more tricks: The most effective way to banish a spot – lemon juice? toothpaste perhaps? Or on one fateful occasion, a clove of garlic, applied to my face, which resulted in a burn that left me scarred for weeks. At family gatherings we still giggle over the time when my younger sister, after reading that mashed fruit made an effective and free (the latter was important in our world) face mask, applied crushed blackberries to her peaches and cream English complexion, lay prone with the regulatory cucumber slices covering her eyes, for some time before emerging hysterical on the upstairs landing, her face stained an unbecoming puce and one eye filled with pips, leaving her in pain and temporarily blind.
These are the rituals of youth I see played out by my children. The bathroom littered with a dozen or more half used pots of hair gel is a testament to their growing and seemingly relentless urge to become something other than they are, someone modified and externally bettered. To fit in – or perhaps to stand out. It’s a rite of passage that I remember well in myself and my friends, as I watch my own family maturing.There seemed to come a point of self awareness where the child who had never questioned his or her own being, becomes hyper focused on scrutinizing themselves – and almost invariably, the natural, wild self with boundless unselfconscious energy and curiosity seems to be shaped and carved into a different and altogether more considered being.
A passing glance at my reflection in a shop window this morning, reminded my how much of these experiences have accompanied me from childhood, albatross like, playing out into adulthood . The fruit masks may be long gone, but they’ve been replaced with more expensive, socially acceptable alternatives: Estee Lauder, Laura Mercier and Lancome have all at some time reaped the financial reward of my urge to be someone else, my lack of acceptance of the person I see in the mirror.
My mother was a teenager in the 60s when women’s liberation and relative affluence allowed, perhaps for the first time, the exposure of flesh, the outward expression of sexuality. She, like so many others, strove to emulate Mary Quant, Biba and Twiggy . Icons, figureheads of a newly free generation. They were touted as the first generation of women to “have it all” – perhaps they did, but they seemed painfully unaware of what to do with this “all”.
A professional musician, bright, fiercely intelligent and startlingly beautiful, my talented mother chose to spend an inordinate amount of time honing her healthy – and by modern standards petite, body into a size 6 mannequins’ frame, with bronzed skin, streaked blond hair and in the process she unwittingly gifted my sister and I and inheritance of unworthiness. A conditional acceptance that led us to believe that we were OK only if we conformed to the thin, beautiful and clever ideal. Very rarely was any mention given to living creative, fulfilling, emotionally and physically healthy lives, Instead we embarked upon a battle with our imperfect bodies and minds until eventually self loathing, persecution and restriction became our modus operandi.
Over the years the chains have loosened but even now, catching site of my shiny, satin curtain sleek, dark hair I’m reminded that ironically, it’s only recently in my mid 40s as my hair becomes peppered with grey, that we’ve agreed a ceasefire, my appearance and I. I grimace at memories of my younger self, rigid in stylists chair time and time again as my hair was teased, backcombed and set into yet another recreation of Lady Diana’s hairstyle. When this stage passed, photos of my university days show a white streaked brittle haystack effect and later still an agressive young red indian peers out of fading polaroids with fierce gray eyes behind a stern fringe. Short pixie a la French movie icon and long and curly followed until eventually I succumbed to the pleasure of letting my hair do it’s own thing – hanging free and swinging proud of its’ straight dark beauty.
The tragedy that I see in myself is the wasted life, the days and hours distracted from being really present by, obsessively trying to change that which was inherently loveable and acceptable in the first place. If only I’d recognised then that life is wonderful and is there for the taking. In a world that seems ever more obsessed with visual appearance I want my children to be awake. To plant the seed in the back of their minds that making peace with themselves is the secret to living well and being accepted and that perhaps this is the most important thing they can do for themselves.
So, my little ones, treat yourselves as if you really matter.Realise that change is possible but that it never comes from a place of self hate. Do what you can to create a healthy happy and trusting relationship with yourselves. Use food and exercise to celebrate the way your body works rather than judging it. Listen to yourself, take time to cultivate wisdom and be brave enough to question the cultural stereotypes and send you running from gym to the next hyped diet craze. Then be brave, go into the world and share who you really are – be yourself with pride.
“I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”
― Rita Mae Brown