The Emotionally Loaded Language Of Cleansing

Sometimes, as I prepare to wash my face, I worry that I’ve accidentally joined a cult. “Be free from impurities!” screams the soap. “Your face will become soft, smooth and clear!” Or “Our 14 step programme will remove all dirt without stripping essential oils!” A few months ago I heard about a brand beloved by the wealthy wives of Notting Hill which was distributed by some sort of super bougie Avon lady, who provided cleansers of increasingly complex technologies and determined if and when you would be allowed to progress to the next level. It’s baptism in a basin. We’re all born with original sin, but we can have clear complexions and consciences if we pay to play. The Lord will Cleanse. And we’re lead to believe that He will Tone and Moisturise too.

My scrubbed face (and my failure to find a hairband)
My scrubbed face (and my failure to find a hairband)

I love a ritual. I was brought up Catholic, and the feeling I get when I finish up in the bathroom and put down the hot flannel is definitely in the same family as the surge of relief that used to flood through me when I heard the words “Go, the Mass is ended!” Once you’ve washed your face, the day is behind you, and its disasters have gone down the plughole. And I like looking at my bare skin, becoming comfortable with it, and making my peace with Me. The bump on the top of my nose, the slightly red, uneven patch of skin just next to my right ear, the pronounced Cupid’s Bow of my top lip, the way that, at rest, one eyelid is slightly heavier than the other. This is the face I cannot change. I can focus on my favourite parts, accentuate and emphasise it, and control how the rest of the world sees it. But it feels like a tiny triumph, as someone who never felt pretty growing up, to strip away the layers (without removing the essential oils, natch!) and be able to look into the mirror and say “This is me. And that is fine.”

But with cleansing comes the alarming idea of ‘skin perfecting’. Every advertisement we see for skincare (and I’d guess that if you have a job that takes you away from your home, you live in a town or city and you own a TV, it’s over five a day) encourages us to scrub until we’re smooth, work at our wrinkles and solve our spot problems until our faces resemble vacant, smiling satin masks.

I’m incredibly lucky to have reasonably well behaved skin. Occasionally I’ll get a spot on my chin right before my period, and if you were to come close and look deep into my eyes you’d probably find some blackheads on my nose, but it seems to be OK when I make an effort. (I hope that I’m doing some extra good by trying to drink lots of water, not smoking and eating an avocado every time I encounter one.) But what I have doesn’t approach ‘advert face’. And I know plenty of people who’ve experienced adult acne, or those who struggle with their skin as a side effect of vital medication, or just have mysterious and debilitating allergies to almost everything one might buy in Boots. Cleansing isn’t fun for many of us, and it hardly helps to be told that the products aren’t just there to help us wash our faces – they are the ‘path to purity’. We know these images are false idols with feet of clay, constructed to sell us something. But it isn’t fair to use the language of souls to claim that unless we’re silky smooth and free from blemishes we shall be unclean.

We know that the narrow range of bodies we see in the media is problematic. When we talk about airbrushing, we’re usually alluding to the enthusiastic designer who has sliced off some already slender leg so that more sky might show through the thigh gap. Or the person who has digitally created a waist to hip ratio so extreme that the model has no real room for a heart, or kidneys. But what about the endless airbrushing of skin? When the dull, dry, reddened or pigmented is buffed to an impossible polish? We see girls gleaming like marble statues and silently, subconsciously hate ourselves and our realness.

A few years ago, musician Beth Ditto was interviewed by NME, and pictured naked on the front cover. She looked beautiful, luscious and abundant. I remember coveting her clear, smooth skin, and being amazed at its even tone and the total lack of cellulite, bruises, bumps and ingrown hairs. I’ve been a journalist for long enough to know that magazines live and die on their front covers, decent circulation figures are hard to come by and cellulite does not boost sales. But that was when it hit me that society’s stealth obsession with ‘perfect’ skin might be as emotionally damaging as the desire it fostered for ‘perfect’ body shapes.

As a white woman, I’m painfully aware, anxious and embarrassed about the unignorable way the beauty industry focuses on and celebrates whiteness, and I don’t believe we can talk about the pressure to have ‘perfect’ skin without discussing the issue of race . If I’m bothered about Beth Ditto’s cover, I’m horrified and startled by the number of high profile women of colour to appear on magazine covers only to be ‘whitewashed’ – lit and filtered in such a way that their skintone appears to be much lighter than it really is. A very quick, cursory Google shows that Beyoncé, Gabourey Sidibe and Kerry Washington have all appeared on high profile covers or in ad campaigns with lightened skin.

Lupita Nyong’o has spoken about how, as a child, she used to pray for lighter skin, until she became aware of the model Alek Wek and could see a woman with skin like hers being celebrated for her beauty. “She was as dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was,” commented Nyong’o, who made the comment when speaking about how a young woman had written to her to say that because of Nyongo’s work and media presence, she no longer wanted to lighten her own dark skin.

Still, we’re all dealing with an insidious evil. “The evidence suggests that black cover girls don’t sell as well as white cover girls,” says Alexandra Shulman, British Vogue editor. It’s heartbreaking and horrifying. It reflects how collectively fucked up we have become about skin. At one end, the fashion and beauty industry is making us insecure about our blemishes. At the other, it’s geared against women of colour in a racist way.  I know I’m in a position of great privilege to have only experienced the former, and I know I’m part of the problem if I don’t challenge the latter. Still, it’s all a way to make women feel vulnerable, unsure of themselves and less than enough. We’ll buy the magazines and absorb the advertising and believe that if we all had enough time and money, we could become as identically smooth, golden and desirable as a set of Oscar statuettes.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 16.58.40
The results of my Google Image Search for ‘face wash’. White women just love to splash themselves with water!

Ultimately, we will never be ‘free from impurities’. We can scrub until we’re raw, compulsively unpeeling ourselves, becoming more vulnerable with every exposed layer, but our skin won’t be perfect – just less protective. So I want to reclaim cleansing for all of us. When I’m washing the day away, I’m not going to think about becoming less dirty. Instead, I’ll be cleansing my skin of all the bad ideas and confusing messages it’s been exposed to since I got out of bed. Hopefully the face washing will undo some of the brain washing. I’ll force myself to forget the advertisements, the luminous, velvet skinned teenage girls being assaulted by an improbable shower of raindrops and segmented citrus fruit. I’ll rinse off the day’s physical and emotional pollution and return to pigmented, imperfect me.

The Running Woman

In this post I share some details of the eating disorder that I had when I was a teenager. If you’re experiencing or recovering from an ED, please be aware that this may be a difficult post to read and proceed with caution. Thank you. 

At this very second, I feel joyful. I’m in the sort of mood that makes me want to run out into the street and start foxtrotting with the nearest lampost, hugging the local Big Issue vendor, and dashing into the M&S under our flat and scattering sheaths of tenners, while yellling “Percy Pigs are on me!”

This is because I have just been for a run.

I am not one of nature’s runners. I come from a long and perversely proud line of exercise refuseniks. My parents may have piled on the academic pressure, but I think it was a point of pride that I was so bad at PE. Performing poorly at sports ran in the family, or rather, it sulkily limped along, complaining of sprained ankles and demanding Kit Kats.

Growing up, I was big, slow and self conscious. I avoided exercise in the way I avoided wasps, and boys on bikes who would shout insults at me that I didn’t entirely understand. (Now I think of it, I suspect the boys didn’t, either.) But when I started secondary school, I realised I’d been swizzed. It was a school for posh, clever girls, and I’d blithely assumed that we’d all be really crap at sport. Perhaps there would be no PE! But there was a sizeable Venn diagram overlap between the A star students and the lacrosse ninjas. I was insufficiently posh or clever, and I didn’t have the self esteem that I needed to survive.

So I stopped eating, and started to use exercise as a punishment for my many failings. My inner voice was much more critical and demanding than any bootcamp leader. Accidentally eaten a Pringle? Go on a brisk four mile walk and think about what you did! Christmas Day? Well, you can’t be trusted to be near all that chocolate. Get on the exercise bike in your parents’ room – the one Mum uses to hang her dressing gown on – and go on a stationary cycle for three hours, or at least until The Sound Of Music has finished.

Eventually I recovered, but eating disorders never fully leave you, and mine gave me a particularly poisonous present to take home in my party bag – the idea that exercise was horrible, and a stick to beat myself with. It was connected with weight loss, and the way I wanted the world to see me. It wasn’t a way to feel good. It was something I had to do when I had been bad.

Trainers! Not just for running away from bears.
My trainers! Not just for running from bears.

Over the years, I tried and failed to maintain some sort of fitness routine. Kind, patient friends encouraged me – not just to go and do some exercise, but to reframe the way I saw it, and to think about taking care of my body as an act of self love, not of self loathing. I tried Bikram yoga. I joined gyms. I bought a FitBit. I signed up for a 5K and freaked out, deciding to cancel, and just donate more money than I could afford to the charity I was supposed to run for. I was too frightened to move.

Even though I know that my anxiety disorder is about eight times easier to control when I exercise regularly, that I like the way that exercise makes me feel, that I can power walk up the highest incline on the treadmill until the sweat burns my eyes and I look so sodden and spaced out that I might as well have just been hauled out of a river, and it’s euphoric – I feared running. “I will be bad at this,” I thought. “People will see me and laugh at me. Children will point. I will feel ashamed. Why try?”

Then I heard that the gym was shutting over the weekend, right before my holiday. I realised that 12 days with no exercise would be bad for my head and my heart. People had been telling me about trying a running app designed for people who had never run before. “It’s amazing!” my friend Rhiannon enthused. “There’s a recording of a lady called Laura who tells you what to do, and she’s so patient and encouraging. You alternate between running and walking, and it’s hard, but she keeps you going!”

So I set off for the local park, comforted by the fact that enough people felt as anxious as I did about running for the NHS to bother making an app for us. It was much harder than I thought it would be, and at first, I felt embarrassed every time I bounced past another runner. Were they thinking about how slow I was, about how out of shape I seemed? Did they pity me? Did they want to stop me and tell me that there was no point, I should just go home and get back to my sofa?

Well, I don’t think most of them even noticed me, but occasionally I’d share an eye meet and a smile with one of the proper runners. And I don’t think it was a condescending “Good for you!” nod – it was a smile of solidarity, a cheering glass clink with a distant stranger. And being outdoors and among all the green took me out of my head prison and right into the world. Oh-God-So-Sweaty-And-Crap-And-Out-Of-Breath-And…ooooh, look! A swan in the boating lake! Why-are-you-so-slow-these-people-are-going-to-overtake-you-you-big…how adorable is that puppy?! Dogs are a great source of inspiration for new runners, because they move with such unselfconscious, happy freedom. Every time I worried about accidentally getting in somebody’s way, or how weird my arms might look, a dog would gently remind me to calm down and keep going. 

FullSizeRender (4)

When I woke up the next morning, I was looking forward to my second run. I just came back from my third, and the memories make me smile – the lacy, leafy canopies leaning over pathways and protecting me from the full glare of the sun. Noticing more than 10 different shades of green in the trees, as I bounced along.  Being waved at by a kid in a cool lobster t shirt.

I know this is the very beginning of something. Not my running career – but of me finally being able to recognise the fact that exercise is even better for my head than it is for my body. There are so many things to be scared of, and so many physical and mental reasons why it’s hard for millions of us to get started. But exercise is waiting for us when we’re ready for it. It might not make our bodies ‘better’, but it will make us love them harder. It will bring us joy.

So I Got ‘Medication Shamed’…

Everyone’s mental health story is different, but here’s where meds fit into mine…

Sunday, Monday, Happy Days!
Sunday, Monday, Happy Days!

I love other people’s bathrooms. I want to crack open your cabinets. Let me take a shelfie. I’m incurably nosy, you see, and I want to know all about you. Can I covet your Crème De La Mer while empathasing with your eczma? I’m envious of your Armani Luminous Silk foundation, but comforted to know that you too, have at some point suffered from Athlete’s Foot.

This blog is a place to be flagrant about your pharmaceutical needs. I know my cupboards and cabinets reflect who I am, and not just because the main one is made out of mirror. I have some fancy ass shit. My bathroom tiles might be a bit cracked, the sink a little stained, but come on and look at my gear! Behold the Molton Brown shampoo! Check out my Korres shower gel! Marvel at the mini Muji candle! But I also have some less than lovely stuff to show you. Here’s some Imodium, for my occasional but devastating IBS. Super tampons, non applicator, for when my flow is all go. A rusty razor and single, used, false eyelash I haven’t chucked out because I am lazy, busy and disgusting. And a couple of boxes of Citalopram, the antidepressant.

It has taken me a long time to learn that my anxiety isn’t a flaw to work on. I didn’t ask for it, I can’t make it go away, and all I can do is manage it. I’ve tried this dozens of different ways, and for me, medication makes a real difference. There are secondary activities that help, like therapy, exercise, meditation, regular naps and eating lots of vegetables. But without Citalopram, I can’t do any of this. I’ve tried. When I am unmedicated, I constantly feel as though the world is ending, I am underwater, and there’s no air, only wet and tears. I’m smothered with self loathing and fear forcing my body down like a big, bad, scratchy blanket. Medication is an important, positive part of my story. So I was taken aback when I read a few unkind comments ‘shaming’ my decision to picture it on the blog. After all, that’s what I’m here to write about. This is why there are two boxes of antidepressants in the picture.

Anxiety doesn’t need a reason, explanation or excuse. Everyone experiences it in a different way, and it can be as unexpected and hard to control as the weather. But a drug that boosts my levels of Serotonin and regulates the way that the chemicals in my brain behave is what makes my emotions easier to manage. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t stop me from ever feeling sad or scared. But it allows me to live my life and do my job in a way that sometimes wasn’t possible when I wasn’t using medication. It gives me the mental energy to catch ‘unhelpful thoughts’ – the ones about worthlessness and pointlessness. The ones that can create a current that won’t stop whirling until it drowns you.

When you grow up feeling scared of everything, you learn how to stay silent. You keep still, you do your very best to be unseen, but hopefully, eventually, one day you think “Fuck this. I can’t miss out on my own life because I’m afraid. There has to be a different way to survive.”

Living out loud is hard, but it’s what helps the most. This is show and tell. There have been very bad days when seeing a real, relatable person post a picture of a box of their medication might have made me feel less alone. I don’t want to hide the packet. I want it out there, with my perfume, powder and battered paperbacks. When people question my right to reveal it, it makes me very angry. But I don’t feel worthless or frightened. I think that’s progress. 

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Perfume should be a classified substance – it’s the most lethally evocative liquid in existence. Sprayed or unstoppered, it can trigger more unedited recollections than a bad cop who’s exceptionally good at their job. These fragrances make up an olfactory photo album of all my triumphs and disasters.

Tommy Girl, December 1997

I am grown up. Well, twelve, but still totally grown up! Tommy Girl smells like nothing and makes me feel capable of everything. Capable of flirting, capable of kissing, capable of walking down a street with my branded miniature kangaroo zip backpack hanging off one shoulder and having everyone say “Wow! She’s wearing a fragrance that cost £25 from Boots! She’s so cool.” Unfortunately I am still wearing velvet Alice bands, which ruins everything.

I use so much Tommy Girl that I go through my Christmas bottle and require replenishments for my birthday at the start of March. I use so much Tommy Girl that my Great Auntie Audrey takes a fancy to it, and obtains some in time for her next cruise, in order to facilitate maximum cabin boy harassment.

Tommy Girl makes me excited for the future, when I will live in North London and drink four Starbucks lattes a day and go to Babylon Zoo gigs in my long black leather coat. I also have the matching moisturiser and shower gel, which are used before very important occasions, like school discos and the time we had to go on the church coach trip to Plymouth with the nuns. The toiletries don’t smell anything like the perfume. They smell like washing up liquid. It must be a grown up thing.

Aqua di Gio, March 2000

The girl in the advert looks a bit like Phoebe Cates in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which works well with my slightly sexier, soon to be boyfriend having, fifteen year old persona. I’m not eating, which sometimes makes me feel as if I’m flying. I spray this on my wrists and clavicles, admiring their jut and snap. I’m made of willpower and bone.

But then it’s summer, and the scent warms on my skin and blooms voluptuously, and I’m eating ice cream and being caught climbing out of windows with bottles of tequila and taking my bra off and letting people see my nipples on the lower deck of a cross channel ferry. And my Gap zero candy pink jeans don’t do up any more and I’m not sad, I’m glad, I’m glad.

Paul Smith Rose, July 2007

I am twenty two, and I have never felt less grown up in my life. My pale grey suede court shoes are sinking into the grass, muddying the cream leather bows at the ankle. Someone, maybe Holly, maybe Beth, is forcing us all to stand in front of Heslington Hall – the only Brideshead-y, Oxbridgey building on campus. The only one that looks like it wasn’t built by an angry, colour blind Communist.

“And one, two, three, THROW!” We force our faces into whimsical grins, and toss our mortarboards into the air. I can’t have been the only one worrying about getting the wrong hat at the end, and facing the wrath of the hire people. But the hat already smells of me – uncertain, quicksilver, hope shot through with fear. I smell expensive. I should smell bloody expensive. My parents have invested several thousand pounds in this moment. Tomorrow, I shall return to my horrible graduate PR job, where my horrible boss smells of CK One. I smile gamely, toss harder, and plan to get very drunk.

Bulgari Jasmine Noir, December 2011

I am wearing this for a man who doesn’t care what I smell like, because he smokes approximately 60 cigarettes a day and probably wouldn’t notice if I shit the bed. I turn up, oiled, shaved, waxed and scented, to listen to what it’s like to be married and divorced and busy and successful and distracted. I am the most empathetic person to ever wear a suspender belt. I shower carefully before I see him. He showers carefully after he sees me.

I smell like a mistress, and I wasn’t built for that.

This perfume is bad magic. It has delivered me from the arms of someone who doesn’t care about me, and put me in the path of someone who cares even less about me. The bottle is shaped like an evil amulet – if I hurled it at my reflection, it would smash, and I’d disappear among billows of bitter smoke and shattered glass. I am sinking, I am disappearing, and I will leave nothing but a tiny pile of silk and lace behind me.

Dior Forever and Ever, March 2012

Being, to all intents and purposes, a single girl, I have rituals. I buy myself flowers. I cook myself steak. I am undoing the damage that the one before the last one did by flinging money at the problem. Money I don’t have, but it seems to be working. I can tenderise a rib eye like no other. I don’t wake up crying in the night any more. And I really want to fall in love.

So I find a bottle of something that smells like falling in love – fearless love. Roses on a misty morning, roses still dark green and growing, roses that don’t know scissors and buckets and pollution from passing cars. Its sweetness comes from its freshness – it is without artifice. Careless hope that is not tempered by the anxiety that comes from youth and London living. And I buy it, as a birthday present to myself.

The very next day, I meet someone. And fiercely, fearlessly, we start to fall in love with each other.

FullSizeRender (1)

This post originally appeared on Shiny Style

A Letter I Wrote To Myself About Getting Fat

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 16

Shall we talk about your body?

Your body, which used to be thinner. Which you took for granted, because it fitted into cheap, tight dresses. Your body, which took you up and down Brixton Hill, every day, twice a day, never unheralded by catcalls, the stream of men and their “Oh baby hey baby nice tits nice ass hey WHERE YOU GOING?”

Your body was a girl’s body, made from dancing and late nights and skipped dinners, of hopefulness and sleeplessness and sadness. It took care of itself, or rather, you didn’t care that it couldn’t. It wasn’t for you, and so you didn’t mind that you couldn’t always afford to feed and nurture it. The admiration of others was nourishment enough. You often went to bed feeling empty. You thought it was heartbreak. It was probably hunger.

Then your body became plump with love.

Late dinners and later breakfasts, cream in your coffee, champagne in the bath, room service bacon sandwiches. Watching your skin, glowing and gold, buttocks round on white sheets, talking and kissing and laughing, the tension in your stomach dissipating.

Love gave you the confidence to grow your career. And your body grew with it. Writing in bed, writing on sofas, writing at the kitchen table, your body still so your brain could pump thoughts furiously, fingers flying.

Now, you have the body you deserve. The body of a woman in love, who is loved, who’s managing to make money and maintain a room of her own. A woman who adores buying wickedly extravagant dinners for people she likes, and has the wherewithal for a cab home afterwards. A woman with wide hips and full thighs, who can’t pour herself inside the cheap, tight dresses any more.

And even though you have everything to be confident about, everything to play for, this has made you sad. You worry that in spite of everything you have gained, the world liked you more when you took up less space.

It’s hard to be honest about how you feel, how you worry sometimes that even though you’re bigger, you’re disappearing, how dressing up was once a source of joy and it’s how a source of panic, how it’s hard to fully appreciate why zips get stuck and buttons don’t meet in the middle. And everyone says “love your body”, but it’s an empty instruction, like “fly a kite!” It sounds wonderful, but it’s hard, and confusing, and you feel guilty because you can’t get it right.
You don’t have to love your body all the time. But love it in bed, and in the bath. Love it when you’re walking fast, and your music is loud, and your boots are clumpy. Love it when you’re walking up huge, hidden gym hills, and the sweat burns your eyelids, and you still, somehow keep going. Love the way your belly shakes when you laugh, and your legs shake when you orgasm, and your shoulders shake when you cry. Keep taking vitamins and washing your face carefully. Dance more, dance harder, and don’t stop downing a pint of water after the wine, before you go to sleep.

But mostly, don’t worry. As long as you can sing and come and giggle and wiggle and weep, you’re treating your body exactly as you’re supposed to.

The Fairy Dress

To fully explain my feelings about fashion, first I must tell you about my mother.

To fully explain my feelings about fashion, first I must tell you about my mother.

For Mum, the seventies weren’t sexy, the eighties weren’t excessive and the nineties were about shielding one end of the family from their own raging, surging oestrogen levels and the other from their own baby sick. She grew up in an era when we were reacting to the structured, the rule based, the shaped. She was born to go braless, to wear jeans (because they help you move faster), and I think she had to be persuaded to wear make up on her own wedding day.

Perhaps because of her Catholicism, and the idea that vanity is sinful and sexiness is worse, Mum seemed to be born not to care about clothes. Also, she did a lot of her growing up when Thatcher was on the throne and money was tighter than Britney’s cervix circa 1999. And she arrived at the tail end of a big, boisterous family, and her confidence took a little while to blossom because, had she chosen to wear clashing clogs and look-at-me-neon, her brothers would have made her life insufferable.

Then she got married and birthed a daughter who seemed to share genetic make up with Ru Paul and Lolo Ferrari – not with her.

I believe every mother who claims they tried and failed to ban Barbie, because I was that kid. I pouted and strutted like a tiny version of Emily Howard, the Little Britain transvestite, in a hot pink cardie, pale pink tights, a fuchsia frock with my M&S vest over the top, because it had lace on and was embroidered with pink top hats. (My younger sister had the ‘seahorse with the sparkly eye’ vest – I was too big for it, and I hated her for it.) They either had yet to invent tiny plastic pretend heels, or I was forbidden from wearing them for mysterious reasons of ‘suitability’. Either way, I popped a couple of Brio building blocks down each socks and staggered on, just like a grown up.

At four, I was entirely secure in my own aesthetic. I knew what I liked, and I never wavered. And what I really liked was fairies.

Admittedly, it was probably Tinkerbell lighting up the Buena Vista logo with her wand that did it. But then, Tinkerbell was more promising a proposition than Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Ariel. I had no interest in being a princess. It was obvious they were just fancy WAGs. Palaces were places where one had to keep one’s bedroom tidy. Handsome princes would invariably grow up to become arsey, put upon Kings. So Menalaus nagged and Helen cried. Even the kit was a bit whevs. Crowns looked heavy, and you couldn’t run around in a crinoline. Fairies dressed for comfort and speed. They wore clothes to make and break rules in, because they could do anything. To wish to be a fairy is to wish for infinity wishes. And so I wished for a fairy dress.

I put my order in early. “So, Mummy, I was thinking that maybe Santa could bring me a fairy dress at Christmas?” This was August ’89, and ninety degrees in the shade.

“Darling” replied my mother, thinking quickly, “I’m not sure Santa can get those. You probably have to actually be a fairy,” (My lip wobbled and I blinked defiantly) “which I’m sure you will be, if you keep practising, but for some fairies it takes years and years. Why not ask Father Christmas for a nice…” she looked around wildly “paddling pool?”

There was no more talk of fairy dresses. But I practised very hard, and when I shut my eyes before I went to sleep at night, I saw a vision of pink ribbon and tulle. Something for jumping and soaring. A spell casting dress.

The heat shimmered and faded, autumn’s crunch came and gave way to wintry Radio Times covers and hot chocolate, not milk, before bed. I had a dim idea that Christmas was coming, and it was so exciting I didn’t know what to be excited about first. Nan and Grandpa were on their way! The Snowman was on telly! We were getting fish and chips! (I was given a battered sausage and told the crunchy part was essentially a giant Quaver. It wasn’t.)

On Christmas morning, I woke to a stocking full of promise. I decided the giant tube of Smarties would double as a wand, and was possibly a message from Santa – he was saying ‘hang on in there, kid’. I also acquired a pink parasol for my tiny drag act, an enormous encyclopedia and a Tinkerbell make up set – fairy endorsed. I set about applying pink lipstick to my chin until my father suggested I might like to read my encyclopedia.

It was a great day. There were plenty of presents, dinner was delicious and nobody wet themselves. It wasn’t until the evening, when I was starting to get sleepy, that Mum smiled and told me about the gift Santa couldn’t fit in my stocking.

She produced two boxes – one for me, and one for my younger, seahorse vest wearing sister. And we pulled out two dresses – visions of pink ribbon and tulle. Proof. Proof of glorious, unpredictable magic. Proof we were worthy of the powers those dresses would bestow upon us.

Looking back, I know the dresses were proof of a love even more potent than magic. Mum, who was taking care of a very young family, running a household and hated sewing even more than she disliked clothes and vanity, had been staying up, sometimes sitting in the dark when everyone else had gone to bed, stitching and cutting and pricking her fingers, because she wanted her daughters to believe in something mysterious and amazing.

I’ve spent my adult life searching for another fairy dress. Something to make me feel equal parts powerful and pretty, that I can jump and soar in. But then, maybe I don’t need a specific frock. Perhaps the fact someone loves me enough to have once made me one is what transforms all my dresses into fairy dresses.

This post originally appeared on