Morphing into a Grown-Up

I googled a strange thing today. I googled ‘Why does my face look different in a mirror to a photo’?’ As Google searches go, this was odd even for me but I was having a pondering moment, thinking about my changing appearance, and thinking that it is frustrating that my face in real life appears to be back to front. Or, perhaps it is my face in the mirror that is back to front, that would make more sense. The mirror is wrong, I know that. But sometimes I feel like I look much better in the mirror and it hides things about me that I don’t like, such as my crooked tooth and my different shapee eyes. I guess these are features that I see in full technicolor but others may never notice.

So there I am, googling that strange thing. And the voice in my head -the rational one – is screaming at me to put down the phone and step away from the strange thought. Does it really matter if I look different in real life to the way I think I look? Does it matter if I’m not the Goddess I wish I was? Hell, does it even matter how I look at all? I’m a 35-year-old woman. I’m supposed to be thinking like a grown-up. I’m a feminist, so am I not supposed to be rejecting beauty as a myth?

I suppose you could say I’m in the midst of an image and identity crisis, which is less a crisis and more a puzzle. All around me I see signs that tell me I’m supposed to be acting like this grown-up me. I’m supposed to be looking on my younger years fondly, but not actually wishing I was holding any of the features that once made me young. I’m supposed to be mature, wise, learned. But I don’t feel like that. I feel like I’m in a kind of limbo between my fun-loving twenties and this bit now – not yet in my forties but with no real place on the map to stake my identity.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a ‘woe is me’ tale about how I wish I looked like my younger self. The thoughts about my physical appearance are a metaphor for how I feel overall. I look in the mirror and see somebody who is changing more than I’ve ever changed before and I see my face reflect every bit of that change.

We hear a lot about identity crises. It isn’t uncommon to go through one, but I always associated them with people much older than I am now. As a child, I viewed people in their thirties as proper grown-ups and that meant they had their shit together, they knew their stuff, and they were in charge. I don’t feel like that at all. Outwardly, I give the impression of being a grown-up. I do grown-up things. I live in my own house. I have a job. I drive a car. I occasionally listen to Radio 4 and I have a strong instinct to complain when neighbours play music too loud. But inwardly, my younger self refuses to go away. Refuses to accept that I’m moving on. I’m not that person now. I don’t look like her, I don’t think like her, I don’t even sound like her. I’m not her. She was from a different time.

That person in the mirror now isn’t the wrong way around, she’s who I’m supposed to be. It’s just that I haven’t got used to her yet. If we think on a basic level, it takes us the first twenty years of life approximately to grow into fully formed adults, and some say that you’re not fully formed until you’re 25, so it isn’t unreasonable to expect that the transition from shiny and new adult into fully-fledged, practical-clothes-wearing adult, should also take a long time to accomplish.

I wonder if anybody else is wondering this wilderness too? Or if anybody else has come out the other side? When do you get to the other side? And when you do, are you older and wiser? Are you now the learned lady you wanted to be? Are you completely accepting of how you think, feel and look?

I would love to have a Crystal ball so I could see when I will get to the other side and become the self-assured person I want to be. I would like to hope, selfishly, that I’m not alone in feeling this. I suspect I’m not. But if there is anybody who has got the t-shirt, all advice is most welcome.

image: The Woman and the Mirror, shared under Creative Commons public domain by MDIrwin99


Silencing the Inner Critic

The Head of the Girls’ Day School Trust, Helen Fraser, recently raised concerns about how girls are being affected by their ‘Inner Critic’, which is stopping them transferring their educational success into workplace success.  Not long after that article, BBC News featured a piece offering advice on silencing your inner critic, from high-profile women including J K Rowling and Dame Kelly Holmes.

I’ve thought a lot about this since I read it.  It feels very much like the things that have been worrying many of us for some time, but we couldn’t put our finger on how to describe them, finally have a name.   With the new wave of feminism we are in at the moment, we are hearing a lot about this inner critic, about ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and the need for women to ‘lean in’.    I don’t think I’m alone in worrying about the lack of progress in achieving equality for girls and women, but I find some comfort that the recognition is starting to happen.     Perhaps this is a start for our girls for the future, but it doesn’t answer how we silence the inner critic now and indeed how we silence the inner critic for women who have listened to it for years.    How do we change a whole way of thinking for an entire gender?    One thing is certain and that is the enormity of that task.

I met my inner critic when I hit puberty.  Until about 12 years old, I had been very confident, chatty, outgoing and self-assured.  I had never had a boyfriend but I didn’t care too much; I had lots of friends.   My school went away for a week on an adventure week.  Before we went, I had my hair cut off.  Regrettably, I let the hairdresser experiment with my hair and cut it very short.  Far from looking like the fourth member of Bananarama as I’d hoped, I looked a bit too much like Wendolene Ramsbottom from Wallace and Gromit.  It wasn’t good.   Whilst I was away, though I had an amazing week, I had to at some point wash my hair.  And I didn’t have the first clue what to do with it to get it to how the hairdresser had styled it.  Of course, now I know I shouldn’t have been worrying about it to the level that I did.   But we put a lot of store by how we look when we are younger.  Hell, we do even as now as grown-ups.  We worry as kids that we look different to our peers.   If we look at it on a basic level, our bodies and faces and our hair are all going through such an awkward phase as we grow through our teens, and it is in direct conflict with this that we want so much to look good so that we can feel good.    So, like my friends, I just wanted to look good.  I was in love with a boy who I thought might love me back.   I wanted him to think I looked good.   And the last thing I needed was a major hair set back.

When I arrived back at school after the week away, the first thing my friends did (my actual friends mind you – not just kids in my class) was laugh at me.   When it’s your friends laughing at you, even though as a grown-up you might question whether that meant they were probably not friends, you feel the pain much more than if it is people you don’t like.   And I felt the pain.   And I felt the shyness.  And I felt myself withdraw.   Over the next year or so, I came to really dislike my appearance.  My hair grew back of course but I felt like I lost my sense of self-assurance in how I looked and how I communicated to others.   Self-doubt took over, self-assurance lost.

Looking back, I realise now that it was never about the hair.  It was about a significant time in my youth – puberty – triggering the onset of a shyer period for me, where my inner critic became known and I began to really listen to her.

I know I’m not alone in this.  I know it is a problem the world over for young people and in particular young women who believe they are not quite good enough, and who believe that the person next to them is better.    The problem isn’t necessarily that this happens, the problem is that it isn’t always recognised and young women and girls are not always encouraged to stick two fingers up at their inner critic.

And perhaps it isn’t even about silencing the critic.   Critics after all are not always bad.   A useful and insightful inner critic may be helpful and healthy for us all.  Somebody to help us reflect on how we’re doing things is no bad thing.  But when that voice is always doubting and negative, it is bad.

Helen Fraser’s comments about girls not mirroring their educational achievements in the workplace really resonated with me.  I think it will be the case with a lot of young women and girls, that they don’t feel they can put themselves forward in the workplace for opportunities and leadership roles in the same way boys and men might.    Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative in America is a wonderful way to try to combat this.  I wish we had something similar in the UK – perhaps it will take off.  I know a lot of people around me now are becoming more and more aware of Imposter Syndrome – where women feel that they are imposing on a role that isn’t really theirs.   They may be doing something very important at work, they may be experiencing a new success at home.  On the outside, people can see their achievement.  Inside however, the women are waiting to be unveiled as a fraud, because they feel that they don’t deserve it, that they can’t really do it, and somebody will soon find out.    I feel this too.   Again, I know I’m not alone.

Imposter Syndrome.  The Inner Critic.   Do these all come in some way from the role women and girls are expected to play in life?  Centuries of telling us we are the ‘second sex’?  When education used to be the preserve of boys and men, when women’s roles were only in the home and not in the workplace.   Is this the hangover from so many years of backward, unequal thinking?    I think so.   But I know that these things don’t change overnight.   Indeed, great change often takes so many years.

I’m greatly encouraged by the initiatives, the recognition, the names being given now to the feelings and limitations we have experienced over the years.   I hope that these spread far and wide and that our girls (and our boys) grow up with a sense of equality that wasn’t there before.   Here’s hoping.



In Awe of Festival Goers

I went to my first festival recently. I’m 35 and until this year I had never been to a festival.  This one was a wonderful celebration of African music (I’m told it is the largest in the UK) and it was just fabulous. I went with my husband and the kids. We didn’t plan it at all. Some of our friends said they were going, my husband had heard about it too. So off we went.

We rocked up to the event with just ourselves, a changing bag, some sun cream and some cash to buy food. We just about managed, but looking around at the other festival-goers, including our friends, there was some pretty impressive preparation going on. People had equipment ranging from your basic picnic blanket to a full-on gazebo-with-bbq set up. It was pretty awesome. There was a massive stage, a fun fair, loads of stalls, more food than you could wish for, random speakers dotted about the site playing a mix of music and being guarded by dancing people who looked achingly cool and appeared not to notice anyone around them. The sun came out and it was just a perfect day. The only downside was the toilets but, as my husband kept telling me when I was cursing my lack of alcohol gel, that’s festivals for you.

So, first festival. Done. And it was lovely. And I would do it again. Except, this was a day-festival and didn’t require me to stay over. I think the proper staying-over type festivals are still not for me. I’ve never been drawn to the weekend-long festivals. They never grabbed me. Muddiness, trendy wellies, going to horrible toilets all weekend, not showering, and probably not sleeping. I only saw these bad bits. But I have always been in awe of the people who go to the festivals and get totally and utterly lost in them. The sort of people who end up in the PR photos – stuck in the mud, with the hot-pant shorts and the trendy wellies, trying to push a shopping trolley full of their things whilst some friendly Police person helps them. For all my secret longing to be like them, I just don’t have the natural coolness in me to be able to shrug off all the bad bits off in the name of music.

In the last couple of years though, I’ve had a sort of rebirth. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve not suddenly signed up for a summer of festivalness.  But, I have discovered that festivals attended from the comfort of my sofa are something I can cope with. My husband thinks it is hilarious (he is somebody who did the festivals very well in his youth so he can sit up on a high horse and chortle away at me). He laughs at my new obsession when ‘big’ festivals begin, when I have to set the highlights to record so I can watch them whilst I’m clean, warm, dry and rested in the comfort of my living room. I might even have a hot chocolate whilst I’m watching. I will definitely wear my comfy trousers. I will appreciate the music and for just a little while, I will pretend I’m that little bit of festival-cool.

The highlights from this year’s Glastonbury are safely on my YouView box. I watched the first bit of Adele’s set with the kids (fast-forwarding the blue language of course) and it was fantastic. I have a hunch though that in the future, the kids will become real-life festival-goers. Not like me.   I think I will stick to being an armchair festival appreciator but every now and then venture out to a local festival – but only as long as I get to come home that night, have my bath and put on my coat of home comforts again. Bliss.


image: Coachella, 2014, under Creative Commons.

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