There’s a picture that lives in my mum’s house. It’s tucked away in a bottom drawer, and perpetually eked out by my youngest sister to embarrass me in good company, or to bring me down a peg when my self-esteem is isn’t totally flat-lining. In this 4” x 6” oblong of evil, there’s a fossilised childhood moment that epitomises my relationship with stereotypical femininity. It’s the early 90s, my little sister’s confirmation, and I’m the angry, squareish blob in the orange plaid tent. There’s a mock-wicker headband awkwardly rammed onto my bad bowl cut. Everyone else is beaming – mother channelling her best Demi Moore, holding a cherubim baby and my sister looking like a quaint-but-slightly-icky miniature bride. Nothing much has changed apart from a.) I’m too big to be forced into a dress and b.) I pay good money to keep said bowl cut in check.
I remember this particular picture so well, because it sums up a sentiment that’s stuck with me for most of my life. I’ve never really felt comfortable being a girl, with all the gendered trappings that come with it. My earliest memory of feminine incongruity was being briefly left alone in the bath, and attempting to shave my legs with a nearby razor. With the typical dexterity of a two-year-old, I remember the shock as that little Bic biting into my skin, and watching that pruney little piggy pump crimson into the dissipating foam. In the twenty-six years since, I’ve not gotten much better at it.
Around other perfectly presented people, I’m a walking omnishambles just about scraping together a façade of decorum. My Barbies looked like Tank Girl, sporting fibre-tip and scabs, and the bruises I flashed for street cred were the constant subject of parental lamentation. As soon as I was too big to argue with, the waist-skimming waves were lopped off and the ribbons banished. As I’ve grown, my staunch objection to ‘girly’ has softened, and I’ve dipped my toes into the world of beauty – but the whole time, I’ve felt like a squatter, with eviction imminent. As I write this, my bleach is curing under a Tesco bag turban, as I drink a pint of beer. Case in point.
As a woman nudging thirty, I made a promise to start operation ‘get classy’. This resulted in a number of ill-conceived attempts to embrace my inner bombshell. I’ve yet to find her – but I’ve been assured by more than one Buzzfeed quiz that deep underneath the superhero t-shirts and hairy armpits, Jackie-O is hiding. I could really do with her making an appearance soon, as the only clothes left in my cupboard belong to her. A rather cull of my moth-eaten art school garb has left me with only three safe outfits and a smattering of classy combos I have neither the brio nor moxie to wear. But when a wedding looms, as it so often does these days, I try to up my game. Last weekend was one such time. Perversely, a day for celebrating others’ happiness inevitably induces a panic that burns with the fury of a thousand suns.
As the wedding approached, I applied my usual new subject methodology, and crammed hard. There were endless YouTube tutorials on eyelashes, and contouring (which, by my hand, was more cubist than Kardashian) and I pored over many Pinterest boards curated by people with better wardrobes and higher cheekbones. I read the Sali Hughes book. I enlisted the help of stylish pals, borrowed clothes and acquired a stunning hat big enough to merit an exclusion zone. I bought boots that on the shelf were the stuff of dreams, but on my feet bestowed me with all the grace of a stoned stork. That and they boosted my already sizeable self to 6’3” – only a few inches shorter than my date. This didn’t go unnoticed, as the several ‘Amazon woman’ comments inevitably headed my way. If Tim Curry can look fabulous and dance the Time Warp in the bloody things, why do heels transform me into a giraffe on skates?
To me, everyone looked wonderful and I watched with awe. I’ve always felt like a bit like Bill Oddie around beautiful women – admiring those perfect embodiments of style, with fancy bags and matching shoes, perfectly curled hair and nails that have been kissed by angels. To me they are things of impossible perfection, who actually brush their hair and whose skincare regime doesn’t consist of a hasty scrub with a baby wipe. How do they do it? What’s the secret? Did I miss the class that taught us how to ourselves well and not punctuate with lazy expletives?
Fashion and grace are not worlds that I’m privy too. It’s not for want of trying – I have a secret addiction to obscure Swedish fashion blogs and my magpie approach to buying any makeup has left my bathroom cabinet overflowing with pots of iridescent gloop that will never actually touch my face. I try to accessorize, and succumb to the Coco Chanel rule of “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off” – then I see a Christmas tree, freak out, and peel the lot off. I could barely wear a wedding ring before fate intervened and I trebucheted it into the Seine in a Paris-induced romantic flounce.
I’m not sure what I expected would happen – perhaps that consumption of the literature, and the visuals and well-meaning advice would allow me to strut into my next decade with confidence and sass. Though as my birthday looms, a year into my experiment with another to go, I’m abandoning it in the face of unshakeable empirical evidence. I will always be the girl more comfortable in flats. I will always feel like a twat in a dress. And you could forget about coming anywhere near my nethers with hot wax. It’s frankly, just not worth the effort.