Guest Appearances

Why This Technique Is The Best Medicine For New Mums

white musical notes on red

As a beauty and wellness editor, I get inundated with hundreds of press releases titled ‘next big wellness trend’. That’s usually when I start to sigh or eye roll. Because, while some new wellness trends are backed by scientific and profound evidence, others, such as ‘weight loss teas’ and the celebrity endorsed ‘vagina steam cleaning’ are not only ludicrous and a waste of time, worryingly, they can negatively impact our health.

There is one wellness trend however, that I will preach about at any given opportunity. The Alexander Technique. Although fairly under the radar its been tried and tested for over a hundred years, and as a new mum, AT has neatly helped me to ride out the overwhelming physical and psychological changes that constantly ripple through me whilst trying to navigate motherhood. Now relentlessly time-poor soul-soothing self-care rituals seem a distant memory, and when a glass of red wine isn’t always a viable option (like at 11 am in the morning) this healing practice has been my one true saving grace.

First some background. Founded by actor Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s, he devised the technique after suffering from vocal problems. He realised that when reciting he would strain his vocal organs and after observing himself in mirrors, he noticed he pulled his head back and down, depressed his larynx, and also gasped for air when trying to speak. While this was the root of the problem, he realised it this was part of a bigger pattern of tension involving the whole of his body, that manifested itself at the mere thought of reciting. To heal, he had to re-educate both body and mind, to resist his instincts and learn new behaviour.

Whilst I’m no singer, I benefit so well from AT because I to have developed tension patterns since having my daughter. A career sitting at desk meant that my posture was out of shape to begin with, so being held hostage on the sofa breast-feeding for hours on end, to pacing up down the living room trying to rock her to sleep at 3 am has only served to amplify it. These repetitive and often at times uncomfortable movements not only cause me physical pain in my neck and back, but also bear down on my mood, making me feel foggy, weary and irritable.

AT teacher Brita Forsstrom explains why: ‘The underlying coordination and freedom of movement in the natural balance of the head, neck and back works as an integrating principle in everything we do. If we disturb this balance with excessive and inappropriate tension we interfere with the most efficient use of our bodies.’ AT works by restoring natural balance in body. ‘In essence what you learn is a form of ‘embodied mindfulness’. Being more aware of how we react to the demands of motherhood we can learn to prevent excessive muscular tension and also feel calmer and clearer in our minds,’ adds Forsstrom.

Since having my daughter I have two sessions 2-3 times a month with my veteran teacher Jean. Well into her seventies, she is a complete powerhouse and her healing hands have on more than one occasion worked miracles on my malfunctioning lower back. The first part of the 45-minute session always involves a few minutes learning how to sit down and stand up from a chair with Jean helping me to realise how my habitual reactions contribute to my bad posture and pain. It sounds easy and simplistic and yet getting to grips with ‘unlearning’ 20 plus years of slouching, overusing some muscles and neglecting others, takes time. This is followed by hands on guidance where I lay on a table and so that Jean can loosen all the tension in every single muscle, allowing my back to lengthen and chest to open, which is turn helps my breathing to regulate and my mind to slow.

I often leave an AT lesson, feeling not only taller, (thanks to my spine being lengthened) but as if the mountainous problems I had prior to the session have suddenly shrunk down to nothing. Sleep deprivation seems less torturous and I’m less anxious about work deadlines. I have total emotional and physical equilibrium, and I savour every second of it while it lasts.

Kevyn Aucoin: The Face Painter

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‘I need you to go to Paris and shoot some beauty with Christy Turlington, Berry Smithers and a new girl we’re trying out called Kate Moss,’ said my Editor-in Chief, Liz Tilberis of Harper’s Bazaar US. I was up against it, having turned in some dud pictures from LA, where it had uncharacteristically rained buckets, the photographer had turned out to be a drug addict and the models, having sat in the Winnebago for two days eating donuts, had all broken out in spots. With that black mark against me I wasn’t exactly about to say no.

And besides, the chance to work with the legendary team of the world’s number one make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin, hair god Sam McKnight and photographic star Steven Klein was a thrill. The pictures and words from that two day shoot in Paris remain one of my favourite pieces of work.

Aucoin, McKnight and I quickly became friends, working together over the years on any number of shoots and with any number of ‘Supers’ – (it was the era Linda, Cindy, Naomi et al)- shrieking together over jokes, disasters and the rampant gossip that characterised New York fashion in the early nineties.

When Aucoin decided to write his first book The Art of Makeup, he invited me to co-author. I was delighted. I had never seen anyone paint faces like Kevyn. From Janet Jackson to Diana Ross, Isabella Rossellini, Uma Thurman and Barbara Streisand, he transformed them all with the painterly eye of a proper artist. If space was available Kevyn would lie them down on the floor (no matter who they were Janet Jackson included) because he believed the facial canvas was easier to work on that way.

In the absence of floor space he’d flip his make-up chair (and the unsuspecting model) backwards to lay them as flat as he could. And then, with forensic precision and a battery of sponges, brushes and mainly his fingers, he’d get to work. Sometimes he was so ‘in the flow’ he’d get carried away, like the time he plucked out Kate Moss’s eyebrows to within a whisper of nothing and taped Linda Evangelina’s face so tightly it made her feel nauseous.

Nothing Kevyn did to a face was without purpose. Today social media make-up mavens spew out hundreds of thousands of hours of make-up tutorials on contouring, brow shaping and false eyelash application. Back in the day, Kevyn was the man. She probably doesn’t even know it, but without him, Kim Kardashian would be, well Kim Kardashian without the 3D contouring, the lips and probably even the fake lashes. His influence reaches farther than that of any other make-up artist to date.

Kevyn is the star of a new documentary film about his life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story: Larger than life. Watching it took me back to the time when applying heavy make-up or rather painting faces was a rarity and not the norm. Those were the days when make-up artists were the only ones to spend hours making up their subjects, when ‘no make-up make-up’ really meant, barely any make-up. I know I’m from another era, but truly I find the time that teenagers – girls and boys- spend in their bedrooms applying their make-up utterly terrifying (what happened to reading a book or chatting to your friends?).

I’m not sure Kevyn, who died tragically young aged forty, in 2002, would approve either, but I am sure he’d  be happy for me to pass on to you some of his make-up tips. He thought make-up in the right context was empowering. And he wanted everyone to learn how to use it to its best advantage. So here readers, in no particular order are some of the things I learned from make-up legend and all round lovely guy, Kevyn Aucoin, both on shoots and whilst writing The Art of Makeup.

  1. Blend with your fingers and then blend some more – Kevyn was not a fan of sponges or brushes. Even when he used them he’d toss them aside at some point in the session and return to using his hands. He used to say that it was impossible to properly blend or contour without feeling the skin. He applied foundation, lipstick, blusher, concealer, eyeshadow with his fingers. Even eye pencils were ultimately  smudged and smoked by hand.
  2. Never apply a mascara wand to your lashes without first removing the excess on a tissue. I still do this. It prevents clogging and makes the mascara much more effective.
  3. Place the mascara wand under the root of the lash and move it gently back and forth to build up the depth of the lashes as you apply.
  4. Pale, frosted lips never go out of fashion and they flatter the face. Ditto caramel coloured lipstick, especially on darker skins
  5. Make the most of your assets. Kevyn loved to streamline Asian eyes, accentuate African American cheeks with strong blush and to increase the freckles on Anglo-Saxon skin. He loved working with models of different races and thought the beauty industry was way too ‘white’ – this was the early nineties. If he were still here he’d likely be saying that not enough has changed.
  6. Foundation – if you don’t have the right colour or texture mix two together or dilute with moisturiser. I often saw him mixing his own palate to achieve the dewy affect.
  7. If you are not a fan of lipstick, apply just onto your lip ‘bow’ with your fingers then pat over the top with lip balm to achieve a natural ‘pout’.
  8. Way before the recent Kardashian trend, Kevyn was using a browny blusher to deeply contour. He would continue the blush lightly down the centre of the forehead onto the bridge of the nose and continue onto the chin.
  9. Use the same brownish blend on your eye sockets for night time drama.
  10. Kevyn often wore make-up himself or tried out new looks on himself before applying it to the models. His favourite things for himself were eyeliner, concealer and Kiehl’s lip balm. He would have approved of the current trend for gender blurring make-up.

Endometriosis And Me

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You know that flutter of a feeling you get when something is wrong? An inkling deep down in the pit of your stomach that something isn’t all together copasetic? Groovy in the gastro? Positive in the pelvis? Call it intuition or what you will, there’s something to be said for “knowing” and listening to your own body, trusting your ahem, gut when it comes to your health.

In my case, my “gut feeling” presented itself in my teens. I was late-ish to get my period, at least compared to all my friends. So much so that aged 14 when Aunt Flow finally arrived at school, the boys in my class cheered! From that point on, my period was about as reliable as London’s transport system. Sometimes it would come, sometimes it would arrive twice in one month, and sometimes it would go on strike just for the hell of it.

Coupled with an unreliable period, I was dealt a case of crippling pain whenever said period decided to show up. Now I’ve had a kid, so I can wholeheartedly say, without any hesitation, that I’d rather give birth 10 times over than ever experience those period pains again. It got to the point I was petrified my period would come and worse, that I’d need a number two because boy oh boy, that’s when the sh*t really hit the fan. Oh, and sex a little later in my teens wasn’t much fun either. I mean it never is at that age, but every time it felt like I was losing my virginity all over again and quite frankly no one wants to relive that. Ever.

It’s the early 90s in South Africa and like every good girl I went to see our family gynaecologist – (they literally get passed down through two generations or so let’s just say he’d seen his fair share) and his recommendation was to put me on the contraceptive pill. “To control the periods and manage the pain.” That’s it. No further exploration, no possibility that it could’ve been anything untoward and certainly no mention of the word ‘Endometriosis’.

Fast forward to my early 20s (almost ten years living with chronic pain), I’m now making a life for myself in London with my boyfriend, who would go on to become my husband. It turns out that he doesn’t think holding me whilst I’m doubled over in pain on the toilet is the most romantic start to our relationship, so we started researching. And researching. Everything we read leads us to believe I’m suffering with Endometriosis, a condition in which the layer of tissue that normally covers the inside of the uterus grows outside of it.

But, getting a diagnosis or treatment in those days was incredibly hard. So off we trot to our local GP, armed with all our notes and most importantly, my personal experiences. After a few months, I’m finally diagnosed. “Apologies for the delay to your service, there’s an obstruction on the line”.

With one of the worst cases the consultant had ever seen, I spent the next few years undergoing numerous laparoscopy treatments (a procedure where a laser is inserted through your belly button to burn away scar tissue) having my internal organs separated from each other as a result of years of internal bleeding, which had caused them to fuse together. It turns out I was trying to poop with my bowel attached to my back. I don’t say this to gross you out but, so you understand what a mess it was in there.

At this point, my husband and I were told that the likelihood of me ever conceiving naturally were low. On the flip side, if we did manage to fall pregnant, it was highly likely that after giving birth my endometriosis symptoms would ease off, if not stop entirely.  I was in my mid-twenties, babies were not on the agenda yet, but to be told there’s every chance you may not fall pregnant, ever, is a sucker punch to an already wrecked stomach.

We tried of course. Valiantly took on the challenge until we eventually had to admit defeat a few years later and ask for medical intervention. Throughout the IVF process my thoughts were consumed by first and foremost, a happy, healthy baby and secondly, that this could (bonus) be the end of years and years of chronic pain. Almost eight years later, said baby is indeed happy and healthy and my endometriosis? Well it’s still there, albeit a duller, more bearable throb but enough to remind me of the surgeon’s words as I lay on the delivery table, during an emergency c-section “good grief, it’s a mess in here, a road map of scar tissue”.

Turns out my intuition was right all along and ultimately played itself out as our daughter arrived into the world to the dulcet tones of ACDC’s ‘Highway to Hell’.

Why Wild Swimming Is Worth Your Consideration

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There comes a time in every woman’s life where she needs to take her clothes off and get into the water.  I’m not talking about taking a bath, I’m talking about the invigorating thrill of slipping into the cool, dark water of a pond, a river or even, in my case at the moment, the icy grey North Sea.

There’s nothing more freeing than swimming in a place that was meant for ducks, seagulls, fish and in the case of Hampstead ponds where I often swim, the odd Heron. It probably helps that I was brought up in the land of the broads (Norfolk) where I spent a lot of my childhood falling out of boats into the river or off horses into the sea. Both venues had one thing in common: they were bloody cold.  They both also had the desired effect of waking me up and making me look at the world differently, more calmly and with a better perspective. Even aged ten I could see and feel the benefits – albeit that the dingy  had sailed off without me or the horse had cantered back to the stable.

These days I know when I need to get into the water – even if, during the coldest months it’s into my local chlorinated local pool. You’ll be familiar with the warning signs  – the creeping of the shoulders towards the ears, the aching back, the ragged temper and that most precious of human virtues – patience – disappearing down the plughole quicker than the dregs of last night’s wine bottle.

I’ll admit I’m not always in a position to down tools and pick up my swimmers, but sometimes just thinking about being in the water during the summer months, taking long, slow strokes in amongst the lily pads, the weeds and yes, the ducks, can begin to have the desired effect. There’s something almost primeval about returning to the water, especially the sea. To paraphrase John F Kennedy:  ‘When we go back to the sea..we are going back from whence we came’.

There’s also something a bit daring about plunging into an environment you have previously considered off limits. When Roger Deakin the grandfather of Wild Swimming, who lived around the corner from where I currently reside in Suffolk, wrote his bestselling 1999 book Waterlog – an account of swimming the lakes and waterways the breadth of Britain, most people thought he was mad. Well, ok he was a bit mad – he lived in a house with no central heating, swam daily in his moat and allowed swallows to live in his chimneys, but he was also a genius. A man who underlined the human race’s need for space, freedom to roam and appreciation for the natural world, to the extent that he founded the arts and environmental charity, Common Ground.

Deakin talked about the need for freedom from virtual reality long before most of us even knew it existed. “Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”

Blame the soaring temperatures for this season’s Wild Water craze, but Swim England says that ‘outdoor swimming’ continues to increase year on year.  Websites like Wildswimming.co.uk or Wildswim.com offer advice on your best local swim spots. Caveat: leaping into deep cold water is a bad idea. It can stop that thing called your heart.  Approach with caution.

Why Gardening Might Just Save You, Mentally and Physically

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Gardens frequently make me cry – with joy, in sorrow and often, on my own patch, with utter frustration at my shortcomings (horticulturally related or not). It’s a rare thing though to be moved to tears by a garden presenter (and even rarer for me to be watching TV). But Rachel de Thame’s fleeting presence at The Chelsea Flower show, being interviewed about her breast cancer diagnosis, had me in floods. Here was a woman, clearly somewhat off her game, admitting firstly that she had been having a tough time, and secondly that her garden had been her solace. It was a dignified, sympathetic handling of what could otherwise have just been social media fodder and a headline in a red-top. But most importantly, de Thame’s message of grace and hope in the face of adversity reinforced what we have known all along – gardens are good for us.

Countless studies reinforce the fact that horticulture can help everything from depression to dexterity and boosting the immune system. I grew up in an environment where everyone gardened (well it was Norfolk – what else can you do?) – from sugar beet and potatoes, to sweet peas, lettuces, tomatoes and roses – pretty much everything came from the land. My great-grandfather gardened two acres until he was 85, when what began as a ‘gardening injury’ eventually claimed him. He would have thought there was no better way to go and frankly, once Dignitas moves from a car park to a greener environment I will be utterly persuaded of its inviolable viability as a means to an end. Pun intended.

What this is all about of course is ‘getting out’ of ourselves, of our situation/our illness, off our screens and out of our homes and into the great outdoors. When my auto-immune is at its worst and I’m bed bound, all I want to do is read about people who have gone off into the wilds, lived off grid, swum deep rivers, or built themselves an incredible garden in the face of adversity. (Favourites: Wild by Jay Griffiths, Pondlife by Al Alvarez, The Jewel Garden by Monty Don). I started gardening with a focus verging on fanaticism when I got divorced and moved to a Georgian cottage at one of London’s highest points, with a wayward, downward sloping 90 foot garden. I had just begun to feel unwell and for weeks I stared out forlornly out at the overgrown green and yellow mess that was the unloved garden. And then my friend Anna (a trained gardener) arrived with a car full of tools. ‘Right then’ she said, ‘lets get started’. Within a day we’d cleared the garden of its ghastly light sucking shrubs and Anna had a plan. Swift, visible progress which was sorely lacking everywhere else in my life, was manifest in the green space before me, in under eight hours. I was hooked.

When my diagnosis came through along with its prescription of 30 mgs of Prednisolone, my exhaustion magically deserted me (well actually it didn’t but the steroids masked it). I gardened manically at all hours with little or no sleep, knowing nothing of the negative side effects of steroids, simply assuming I had been bitten by the gardening bug. I was, I thought miraculously cured by my newly discovered love of horticulture.  But when my neighbour stopped me in the street and told me that her husband had glanced out of their bedroom window to see me in shorts, walking boots and a pajama top, digging up a dead lilac tree at 5 am, I realised it was time to re-visit the doctor.

I’m still in love with gardening. When times are tough, just five minutes outside, trimming, weeding or planting is better than any exercise or meditation. The joy of seeing green shoots, pops of colour and catching a waft of fragrance in the breeze, never grows old. Plunging my hands into the soil and getting really mucky after days of sitting in clinical NHS waiting rooms, is my version of a G&T. I believe that gardening can redeem us all in one way or another. From the windowsill spider plant to the five-acre flower meadow and far beyond, the concept of reconnecting with the soil and mother nature has more legs on Instagram than well, millions of tanned, shapely legs (and bums of course).

Best Instagram accounts? @pietoudolf, @thelandgardeners, @greatdixterofficial and hairdresser turned gardenista @SamMcknight1. Chef Thomasina Miers was instrumental in building a garden classroom at a local school, where every child spends at least part of their day ‘learning’, whether it be from the educational curriculum or gardening skills. Take a look at www.schoolfoodmatters.org to see where this utterly transformative movement is going.

The Trouble With Male Doctors

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The NHS says 65 percent of consultants are male. If that’s the case I feel sure that I must have seen at least 50 percent of them. I’m exaggerating, and perhaps the area of medicine I fall under, or into – rheumatology, is not that interesting for women (frankly, it’s not even that interesting to me). Either way, in three years (the last month or two withstanding) I have seen precisely one woman in a consultation about my condition and she was a default because the incumbent had ‘a rush on’ that day. Read More…