Mothering Heights

I have a distinct memory of my mother picking me up from the school gates one sunny afternoon in the ’70s. She must have had to come in to the school for some reason, because my memory is of her looking exceedingly glamorous as she strode in, and me feeling immensely proud. She was wearing an oversized bouclé coat she’d knitted herself (it had different-coloured trees all over it) and purple suede knee-high boots that had buttons down the side. Even then, at the age of around eight, I was aware that she had a style that marked her out from the other mums and I loved it.

I now realise that if I was eight, she must have been forty-six – two years younger than I am now.

As my forty-ninth birthday approaches I’ve realised that I’ve turned into a mother – my mother – without even making that life decision. Last week, I was talking to a younger friend about my dating prospects as a single woman in her late forties, and, trying to be helpful, he immediately referenced his mother as a comparative scenario. It came as a shock that he saw me that way, as it’s not how I see myself. Until now.

Later the same night I attended a Rudimental gig at the O2, on my own, and sat next to a group of teenagers cradling their Diet Cokes and immediately realised that other people would assume I was their mother. Hell, the kids probably thought I’d escaped from a Mother’s Home and was sent there to keep an eye on them. I did keep an eye on the girl next to me, who was stroking her hair extensions obsessively while her best mate ‘cracked on’ with the boy next to her. I was dying to tell her that in about twenty years, she’d be the hot one and her friend would look like a beanbag…

This is the first time in my life that I’ve really been hit by the reality of ageing. I sailed through turning thirty because at that point, I’d only just starting really living life, having missed out on so much ‘fun’ in my late teens and twenties. At forty, I was going through a renaissance, professionally and personally, so it felt like a rebirth, rather than the beginning of the end.

Now, approaching fifty, something else is happening. For the first time, I’m feeling that shift, as the cloak of invisibility descends. Used to a certain level of attention in public (not all of it welcome), I’m adjusting to life as a normal human being who can walk down the street unnoticed. I’m also adjusting to seeing my mother in the mirror every time I go to the hairdressers. That halo of thick, blow-dried hair I remember seeing every Friday when she returned from her weekly hairdo. There she is again. Staring back at me.

There is a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer, in which Amy joins Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette as they help Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate her Last Fuckable Day as an actress (she’s 55). They talk about that moment where the media decides women are no longer believably fuckable and they recast them as mothers. They give Sally Field as the greatest example, one minute playing Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline, the next his mother in Forrest Gump.

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In many ways, life for a woman is like that movie set. I’m shifting over to the other side, but I didn’t ask to be recast. (I’m not even going to get into why mothers can’t be viewed as ‘fuckable’ – as we know they can, judging by the number of searches for ‘milf’, ‘mom’ and ‘stepmom’ on porn sites. It’s just a lust that dare not speak its name, apparently.)

And so, I know what I have to do. I have to be my mother – that woman striding around in purple suede boots and an eye-catching knitted coat, being clever about everything. I have to channel my looky-likey Julianne Moore (55) who just gets better and better with age, as an actress as well as a woman. The number of role models for me abounds: Robin Wright (49); Cate Blanchett (46); Kylie Minogue (47); Gillian Anderson (47). Well hello, ladies. No cloaks of invisibility there.

As ex-Vogue Editor-in-chief Caroline Roitfeld (56) said, “I can not be in competition with a girl of 20, so I have to be the best in my category.”

Showtime.

 

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Things I’d Tell My Daughter

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m childfree-by-choice, but as my life fills with young female friends, I find myself thinking about what I want to pass on to them – in a wise-woman way. I so enjoy their company and I love talking to them about how they navigate the world of work, relationships and, well, just being a young woman.

If I’d had a daughter when I was thirty, she would be eighteen now. So these are the things I’d like to say to her, and weirdly, lots of them are things my mother said to me, but I didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Be yourself

It sounds like a hackneyed phrase that all (good) mothers say to daughters as they walk into the world, but I mean just that. Be your own self. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by being a partner, a mother, or even having a stellar career. Just know that you have a choice in all of this. Define yourself by the life you choose to live, and by the people you choose to experience it with.

If in doubt, don’t

My mum used to say this all the time. But oh how true. If you have any doubts about a relationship you’re in, any at all, leave it. Don’t wait for ‘the day’ to come. It won’t and you’ll have lost valuable time. Never settle for something that doesn’t feel right or compromise your own sense of what is right to please a partner. Your gut will tell you that something is wrong – listen to it and take action.

Love your body

People started commenting on your body from a young age and it will be monitored by those around you (male and female) as you grow older. Look in the mirror and look into your own, makeup-free eyes before you monitor your own body. Make an agreement with yourself to see someone beautiful, strong and taking up space in the world. Never starve your body – eating properly makes you all of these things.

Look out for toxic people

Some of the people you choose to surround yourself with will make you feel good about yourself, others will do their damnedest to try and bring you down. These people are usually insecure and jealous of beautiful, strong, young women who are confident in the world. Surround yourself with the good ones, ditch the toxics. Don’t try and hold on to foul friendships – they will just bring you down. It’s ok to let friends – and family – go.

Be in the space

Take up space in the world. If you’re out walking, running or doing yoga in the park – take up the space. If you’re in the office in a meeting, let your voice take up the space. If you’re online and you feel strongly about something, let your words take up the space. Never flinch if people question why you are there, and they will – make your presence felt and your voice heard.

Be confident in your sexuality

Whatever your sexuality is, people will try and make you feel as though you have to hide it, that it is shameful, that you should not seek sexual pleasure just for its own sake. Do everything you want to do, safely and confidently. Do it and never wake up with regrets. The only regret you’ll have is that you never did it.

Compliment other women

Tell other women that they’re good at things. Things that don’t involve hair, makeup, losing weight or wearing a fab outfit. It will change their lives.

Don’t dread getting older

Don’t. Good things happen and they are unexpected. Your body and brain will have a way of coping with the transition that means you will discover each milestone isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Older women are smart, beautiful and supportive of younger women. Don’t believe the myth that they’re not any of those things – it’s a lie constructed by society because older women are immensely powerful people.

Don’t lead a tick box life

Question everything. Never do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Feel the peer pressure and question it anyway. You can construct your own set of tick boxes that are different to other people’s. Don’t believe what others tell you about people, places or other cultures – find out for yourself.

Do things on your own

Even when you’re young, it’s important to commune with yourself, not just your friends. Do things on your own, such as going to the cinema, walking, going for coffee, even on holiday. You’ll never regret it.

Look out for controlling partners

Beware of signs that your partner is trying to control you. It can be oh so subtle, and before you know it, your life is completely in the control of another. If they make negative comments about your weight, what you’re wearing, or stop you seeing certain friends, the red flag is waving. Get out.

There are wonderful people out there

You’ll know the signs. They will be kind to you, your friends, their friends and their family. They will celebrate your successes and be there when things go wrong, without a sly smile on their faces. They will offer to connect you to people they know to help you in your career, and notably, women will help other women.

Say sorry

There will be times when you regret your behaviour, or saying something that has hurt someone else. Tell them you’re sorry and they will forgive you. If you don’t, the guilty feelings will just build inside of you and make you more likely to hurt someone again. We’re all flawed – think of apologising as a flaw release valve.

Have fun when you’re young

Don’t hide away from fun times. Work hard, play hard – get into all the corners that life is offering you. Make mistakes. If not, you will spend the rest of your life trying to make up for missed opportunities.

Ignore all of this and find out for yourself

Because I did when my mum told me.

The Female Gaze

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the female gaze and why it is so unarticulated in our society. I’ve been thinking about how our lives, as women, are so dominated by the male gaze that it is almost beyond articulation. It is so pervasive that we almost forget that we have the ability to gaze right back.

It is starting to edge its way into our consciousness, as the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is framed with a woman’s gaze in mind. Allegedly, it is made for her viewing pleasure, and the conversation is extending into female-friendly porn, in which the focus of attention is not only on the pleasure the woman is receiving, but on the beauty of the man who is delivering it.

But from the onset of puberty – and let’s face it, some time before that, if we’re honest – women are raised to be aware of the eyes of men upon them. It starts with a gentle commentary on your appearance from both women and men in the family and their friends, and becomes a way of life. We must look a certain way to please men, we are told, and we find ourselves actively pursuing it, even if we are just on the way to the gym. We run marathons in makeup, we wear heels to go to Homebase and we stop ourselves from having a nice dessert in case our thighs make us into undesirable objects.

No one appears to be actively setting these rules. They’re just there. And everyone buys into them and passes them on. Women and men, boys and girls. The fashion designer Oscar de la Renta once gave this advice to women: “walk like you have three men walking behind you.” When I first heard it I smiled, and thought, “yeah, I’d sashay away.” Recently, though, I’ve thought, “what happens if I’m the one walking behind three men?” And I’ve discovered an unusual thing.

Men get really freaked out when you turn the tables on them and gaze back. Try it. Walk directly behind a guy (not too stalkerishly close), or stand behind him quietly on an escalator or in a lift. He’ll slow down to let you pass, he’ll turn round to check who’s there, he’ll manoeuvre round so his back isn’t to you any more. I see it happen almost every day. If I sense a guy is running too close behind me in the park, gazing at my behind, I slow down to let him pass. He sprints away or stops, unable to have my eyes on him. Because, you know, I might be critiquing him in the way that he’s just done to me. Unthinkable.

This week, on one single trip up and down the street I live on, I saw two men empty the contents of their nostrils onto the pavement and one who spat in front of me and then again just behind me. This followed an extraordinary scene where I’d witnessed a neighbour of mine picking his nose in full view of everyone on the tube. I’ve always been fascinated by these acts of public indecency – especially men who pick their noses in cars, oblivious to who may be watching. Then it occurred to me. They do it because they think no one is watching. They’re not used to being watched so they assume it’s not happening.

Believe me, there is always someone watching, and it is usually a woman. Just because we’re not loudly commenting on what men are doing, it doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed. Theirs is a shouty spectator sport, ours is a quietly watchful game of chess.

As I’ve got older, I’ve had to adjust to the ‘cloak of invisibility’ slowly descending around me, as the male gaze opts for a younger, fresher target. At first, I felt really sad about it, but as the months have gone on, I’ve realised that it is one of the most liberating things that has ever happened to me. I’ve realised that I don’t need that approval and I don’t need to seek out the validation, as I used to do. What has happened is that my own gaze has been fully activated and I’m suddenly seeing the world outside myself differently. And it’s good.

Far from being invisible, I am achieving another level of eye contact with all sorts of people. I make a choice about the objects of my own gaze and often find a woman of the same age with whom I’ll exchange a smile, or a younger man, having a sneaky peek. There are people out there who see you in different ways, and not just as a sexual object. I find myself looking beyond the hot guys on the tube (if there are any not picking their noses) to the full range of people sitting around me. It’s almost as if not being gazed at as much has allowed me to look outside myself more confidently and find connections that I may well have missed before.

Of course I’m well aware that this could all be just a huge coping mechanism that my brain is initiating to allow me to experience ageing without knifing myself. And do you know what? It might be. My brain never fails to astound me with its ability to take each supposedly devastatingly awful birthday milestone and turn it into something unexpected and rather wonderful. I don’t have to make eye contact with the guy who is trying to attract my attention by shouting as I run round the park, or smile when he says, ‘cheer up, love.’ I can choose to look ahead, and smile at a young woman who is running the other way, or watch a dog fetching a ball.

My gaze is the one that matters, and my eyes have never been so focused on the road ahead.

Bare-Faced Cheek

For about six months now, I’ve been conducting an experiment with myself. It consists of a simple thing, that will be normal to many women, but it’s not normal for me – going out into the world with as little makeup on as possible, if any.

A few years ago, I saw a counsellor who set me a challenge – think of something that would take me out of my comfort zone and do it, one day a week, for a month. I thought of the worst thing possible for me – going out without makeup on – and chose to set myself that task. I remember going to work, cringing inside, head bowed low … and finding that nothing happened. I had to ask someone – a woman who always commented on everything I wore or my hairstyle – if she’d noticed anything different about me. She just said I looked a little paler than normal (that’s something for me, as my default shade is white), but she had to be prompted to say so.

I immediately went back to wearing the makeup but felt really pleased that I’d completed the challenge. It made me question why I felt the need to wear makeup all the time and why I felt ashamed without it. Why I felt I looked hideous. I questioned it but I carried on ‘using’ – some habits are hard to break. I’d been wearing makeup since I was 14 –  I was fascinated by my mum’s beauty routine and loved trying things from the basket of goodies on her dressing table. I distinctly remember being told off by the deputy headmistress to take off my blue Rimmel eyeliner with Pond’s Cold Cream in the girls’ loos. And the matching nail varnish.

Years later, I remember telling that counsellor that I felt ‘exhausted being me’. I didn’t know quite what I meant at the time but it had less to do with all the challenges of a burgeoning career and more to do with the ‘lady maintenance’ that came with it. I felt I had to be perfect at everything – brilliant at my job, at looking good, at fitness, at home life. Of course, no one can be, and the strain had started to show. The daily armour of clothes and makeup were just a fact of life for me, and the ex-husband who had to wait for me to don it, even for a trip to B&Q at the weekend. While most people ‘upgrade’ their lives on holiday – staying at nice hotels, taking their best outfits with them for glamorous cocktail evenings – I began to love our ‘roughing it’ holidays, where I wore (almost) no makeup and ‘outdoor’ clothing the whole time and went to bed when it went dark. This, for me, was relaxation. No more armour – just me.

When the ‘No Makeup Selfie’ craze started last year, I posted a defiant ‘NEVER’ on Facebook, and then immediately wondered why I felt so strongly about not doing it. I often think my friends look more beautiful without makeup, and their selfies showed it. Why not me? I genuinely thought I looked hideous and it took me until this summer to take one of myself, where I thought, ‘actually, I look ok’. But I didn’t post it.

I only decided to pull back on wearing so much makeup when I watched the movie Boyhood this summer, starring Patricia Arquette. In it, she plays a mother around my age, and the action is filmed in real time over the course of ten years. I was fascinated at how beautiful she looked, with minimal makeup and fresh-faced maturity, year after year. I thought I’d give it a try the next day and then didn’t stop. I went to bars and clubs with just mascara and myself. Nothing changed. Same reaction from women and men, the world continued to turn, I felt more authentically me. I suppose that bit was the real change. I didn’t need a ‘smoky eye’ to attract attention – confidence is the key.

Part of the reason for writing this blog is about presenting an authentic self – look at me from any angle and you get the same person. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blog, real life – it’s all the same version of me, seen from different camera angles. If I’m going to be honest on here, then I’m going to reflect that in real life. Here I am. Unadorned, unfiltered. And I like it.

It made me so sad to see the furore surrounding Renee Zellweger and her radical face change. She appeared at a Women in Hollywood event this week and has faced a barrage of criticism over apparent ‘work’ she’s had done to stave off ageing. Beautiful, cute Renee – years of maintaining that facade has carried forward into a desperate need to change her amazing face at 45. The face that’s been key to her career, that has never been ‘classically’ beautiful but able to assume characters so easily, that has made us all love her.

Like many actresses in her forties, Renee’s scrabbled around to salvage something from her youthful image and in the process lost something of herself. She’s been trolled mercilessly about it by the same people who would criticise her for having the temerity to appear in public looking her actual age. If I was her, or Courtney, Jennifer, Cameron or Sarah Jessica, I’d have buckled under the pressure and had the work done too. And look at Claudia Winkleman – a woman I admire greatly, forced to retreat behind her fringe and heavy eye makeup just for daring to go without both for one night when presenting Strictly. Shame on you, Twitter. I thought she looked amazing as we saw her as she really was, for one brief moment.

It feels odd to finally like your face after forty-seven years on the planet, when undoubtedly it was much more pleasing to look at about twenty-five years ago. I remember liking my reflection when I was 14/15 then suddenly hating it at 17/18. Something happened to make me switch and I wonder if it was the realisation that there was a set of ‘lady rules’ I was meant to abide by. I realised with horror that I’d been caught not following them and scrabbled around to catch up. For heaven’s sake, I’d been out in the world with nothing but lipgloss , a sweatshirt and stretch jeans – what was I thinking?! Give me my armour now.

I’ve not completely given up on makeup and nice clothes – I love fashion and beauty and will never stop loving them. What’s changed is that I don’t feel I have to do them. It’s a choice. If I want to have a smoky eye, I’ll have it – I just don’t feel it’s absolutely necessary to cover up my shrinking fortysomething eyes. If anything, it calls attention to them. I will look people in the eye with only mascara for cover and not flinch, but more importantly, I’ll look at myself in the mirror and smile.

Hello you.

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My Year Without Makeup:

http://www.salon.com/2013/01/10/my_year_without_makeup/

On ageing and plastic surgery:

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/27/i_know_renee_zellwegers_pain/