I’ve decided I’m going to be A Whole New Me. Just kidding. It’s taken me years to get used to the old me. I admit there’s room for improvement (which I always think sounds rather like redecorating the spare room) but, here’s an old-fashioned notion, I really quite like myself.
I know we’re not supposed to say that – and certainly not out loud, because god forbid anybody should think we’re arrogant. I said it to a friend last week who, quite frankly, looked stunned. It was as if I’d said a rude word but perhaps we might show ourselves a little respect. We celebrate our friends. Our friends celebrate us. We don’t sit around saying, hmmm, she could do with some Botox or look at those thighs! We love each other, lumps and bumps and all. We don’t try to change each other.
But we’re awfully good at trying to change ourselves, usually by way of constant insults. We’ve all been in a changing room, spot-lit by the unforgiving glare of neon, and been really, really mean to ourselves, after which we run screaming from the shop to hurl ourselves into a vat of chocolate. Or wine, depending on what our sedative of choice happens to be.
A friend refuses to try on clothes in a shop. “If I did, I’d have to walk around naked because I’d never buy a thing.” She takes everything home so she can see herself in the more forgiving light of her bedroom mirror and if it doesn’t suit her, she takes it back. She also bans magnifying mirrors. “If I kept staring at my face, and saw all the wrinkles, lines and imperfections writ large, I’d probably want to kill myself. It’s like self-torture.” She always looks marvellous, partly because she has an air of cheerful acceptance, which makes her a lot more attractive than the woman miserably pushing a pea around her plate because she can’t get into a pair of jeggings.
Last summer, I went on holiday with a couple of middle aged female friends. It was gloriously relaxing but perhaps the most relaxing aspect was that none of us cared a whit about how we looked. There were no frantic pre-holiday “get bikini ready” diets, and no exhausting comparisons of “oh, my god, her thighs are thinner than mine.” As far as I was concerned, the only essential part of my perfect holiday wardrobe was a large box of PG Tips, because builder’s tea is a luxury I simply cannot live without.
So there we were, slouching around in all our lumpy, bumpy glory. No make-up, no hair straighteners, no dressing for dinner – unless you can call knotting a sarong getting dressed. Those friends could not have cared less that my tummy now resembles a tea bag after the rigours of pregnancy or that the skin on my thighs and arms is now heading south, in a gentle slide that even the politest observer might describe as looking like crepe paper.
Despite the tea bag tummy (tea bags are a holiday preoccupation, obviously), nobody else on the beach gave a damn what we looked like either; just a trio of women idling along the sea shore, but it did make me wonder why I had spent all those years fretting about the way I appeared in a swimsuit rather than enjoying the freedom of sand between my toes.
I fretted at 50, I fretted at 40 and, even more ridiculously, I fretted at 20, but now, when I look back at old photographs, I see an acceptable body – not perfect, but perfectly acceptable – and although I am a firm believer that regret is a pointless waste of time and energy I cannot help but mourn the fact that I did not enjoy what I had when I had it, instead of permanently fretting that that I was not good enough. Now I am 60, I really don’t want to look back in ten years’ time and ask myself what the hell I was doing sunk in self-consciousness rather than wallowing in an azure blue sea.
Seriously, what is “good enough?” Here’s the truth; we are all good enough so the constant seeking after perfection, and the anxiety when we don’t achieve it (because, after all, perfection is impossible) is just plain exhausting. It’s also a way of setting ourselves up for failure, not to mention guilt. It’s a new year so we must go on a diet. We should get super-fit, and train for that that marathon we’re definitely going to do. Every magazine and newspaper tells us so. Well, how about listening to ourselves instead? Of course healthy eating and fitness are important and so is taking pride in our appearance, but that inner critic chattering constantly in our ear that we are not good enough is not. It likes saying mean things, so best ignored.
There are things I like about myself, and things I don’t, but I try and concentrate on the good stuff. The quality I hate most is complimenting somebody on their dress and they say, “oh this old thing”. Or we tell somebody that they look marvellous and they immediately say that they put on five pounds over Christmas. Quite apart from the fact that it’s just plain rude to slap a compliment back in somebody’s face, it’s tiresome. If I say I like your dress, it’s because I like your dress. If I say I like you, it’s because I like you. I’m not saying it to be nice. I’m saying it because I truly do.
So perhaps it’s time to like ourselves. Instead of looking in the mirror and saying, to our own image, “Oh, this old thing”, let’s show ourselves a little more kindness and say, “Oh, you look nice”. It’s a waste, not simply of money, but of appreciation, to rush out and buy A Whole New You. You are perfectly lovely just as you are. I’m okay, you’re okay and we’re okay. Okay?