News. Gossip. Scandal.
News. Gossip. Scandal.
I get my nails acrylic-ed, shellac-ed and top-coated every three weeks without fail. However tight money may be, if I have to search every handbag for the odd 50p coin or sacrifice a couple of post-work shandies, my manis are not a movable expense. Every month I go to my favourite salon, run by a lovely Vietnamese lady called Nung (I discovered when she asked me to talk to her insurance providers on the phone when they couldn’t understand her accent), ask her about her babies, check out her latest colours, and spend 45 minutes unable to check my phone while she files, scrapes, and paints me beautiful (well, at least from the wrists down). I’ve experimented with a million colours: pastels, glitters, matts, shimmers, and odd-coloured ring fingers (which my Argentinian housemate affectionately called my cocaine fingers). Beautifully-shaped talons give me joy for weeks – and at less than £20 a month, that’s more cost-effective than dropping £10 on an eyeshadow or £20 on a top you’ll wear for three weeks and never again. It’s not bad for my health (unless you count the parchment-brittleness of my natural nails under their acrylic armour, a small price to pay), and unlike other “pampering” activities, many of which involve managing body hair, there’s no politically-unfriendly undertone (not that THAT’S what stops me from waxing my bits), and it doesn't hurt (THAT’S why I stopped waxing my bits).
When I was little my Mam used to bring home red circular price stickers from the pyjama factory where she worked. I’d carefully place them over my own (short, stumpy) nails and squeeze the top together, to create a long, pointed nail. The first time I got acrylics, I paid homage to my younger self’s vision of unassailable glamour. They were FABULOUS – scarlet with silver tips, Alabama Worly-tacky, yet sleek and stylish. They made my fingers look graceful and slender – like piano players’ fingers. I had no idea that over the following week, as they grew just a few millimetres, disaster was brewing like a cuticle infection. You see, I wear contact lenses. Apologies if you’re squeamish, but in order to remove contact lenses, you have to pinch them out with the pads of your fingers. It doesn’t hurt a bit, and I’ve been doing it since I was sixteen when Mama Thomas, sick of having a wilfully ugly bespectacled daughter, dragged me to the opticians and wailed “there must be SOMETHING you can do!”.
That morning I’d put my contacts in as usual. No bother there, the pad of my single index finger could get close enough to put them in place. But at the end of a very long day, when my poor eyes were tired and sore, and I attempted to pinch the dry discs out, I couldn’t reach them. My claws just wouldn’t let them near enough to get a purchase. I kept trying, desperately trying, until my eyes stinging and raw. After fifteen minutes it was agony to blink, and I was haphazardly clawing at my eyes like Oedipus in drag. I begged my friends to help - “all you’ve got to do is pinch my eyeball!”. Eventually (under some duress it must be said) a true friend, my beautiful friend Ally, stepped up, washed her hands, and half-gagging, pinched the desiccated lenses out of my eyes.
Despite the near-loss of my sight, I’ve been addicted to manicures ever since. There’s no satisfaction like flawless nails. There’s no joy like admiring your fingers as you go about your chores; doing laundry (ooh, nails!), filling the dishwasher (ooh, they look so nice against the white plates!), emptying the bins (hello again, shiny ovals of joy!). There’s no delight like comparing your latest colour against your clothes, your furniture, book covers, cans and cartons in the food cupboard.
When I feel low, the first thing I abandon is personal presentation. I stop caring what I look like, what I wear, what my hair looks like. Applying makeup is a chore, an expulsion of energy that could be better spent hating myself. Even when I’m perfectly well, when I start a 6.00am shift I don’t always feel like applying make-up. But when I’m pulling coffees with beautiful nails, I feel nice. In spite of the bed hair, the lack of make-up, and being dressed for cheap comfort under a distinctly un-foxy grey polyester tabard, catching sight of those little discs of loveliness at my fingertips gives me a lift.
Manicures are a part of my self-identity. They’re a method of self-care and self-love, and a creative inlet – no one else benefits, they’re just for me. But most importantly, my manicures are proof that I care enough about my own happiness to spend time and money on it. They are one of the everyday ways I keep my joy-muscles limber, and stay healthy and happy, and I’ve got a freshly-painted middle finger for anyone who suggests otherwise.
I've recently made a new circle of friends, and on Saturday at the pub the conversation took that inevitable turn for people under the age of ten and over thirty: toilet talk. Like everyone else who'd been on the internet in the last week, we'd been charmed by a lovely little story of a woman who went Number 2 in her date's house, and upon discovering the toilet didn't flush, scooped the little brown bullet out of the bowl and hid it in her handbag for the remaining duration of the date.
We commended her stoicism, her humour, her commitment to Operation Women Don't Poo, and with the giddiness of Girl Guides telling ghost stories, we started sharing horror stories, each filthier than the last, some our own, some second or third hand. It was a glorious bonding exercise. Ultimately it was agreed: when it comes to fledgling romance, nothing puts the skids on like a skid mark.
“Other people should think you've never had a shit in your life” I roared through a mouthful of garlic bread. “How hard is it to use a toilet brush?”
This, as it turned out, is the most controversial thing I've said since the time I'd claimed there was no such thing as a good James Cameron film (to which the mildest man I know yelled “TERMINATOR TWO, YOU DICK!” before stomping out of my sight). Hannah, the only other woman present, narrowed her gimlet-eyes at me. I wondered whether I'd murdered our friendship in its infancy.
“Brushes. Are DISGUSTING.” she hissed. “They get covered in poo, then they sit in your bathroom, stewing in their own little shit bowl. I will NOT share a roof with one”.
“Use bleach! Rinse it with a flush, what's the problem?” A nasty thought dawned on me “what do you do? Don't tell me...? You don't?!”
“Wrap toilet paper around my hand like a mummy, clean up, then wash my hands. All clean, no mess, no festering poostick eyeballing me every time I pass the bathroom”
“But..you put your HAND...in the TOILET? In the WATER!”
“Then WASH THEM.”
This revelation split the group. We argued ferociously, like kings dividing lands, spilling beer are we gestured with half-empty glasses, pizza crusts hurtling through the air as we thumped the table. We all heartily agreed that brown graffiti is unacceptable. But how to deal with a bowl that looks like it's been done over by Jackson Pollock during his brown period?
I'd never considered brushes to be that gross – obviously I wouldn't brush my teeth with one, but I'd rather use one than be on my knees, elbow-deep in a U-bend. Yet here were people HEAVING at the idea: “I WILL NOT GIVE HOUSEROOM TO SATAN'S SHITSTICK!”.
Conversation then turned to a particular style of toilet in Germany with a little shelf inside the bowl, known as a “lay-and-display”, all the better for admiring your bum-fruit before sacrificing it to Hades. Although clinically useful (healthy guts are important), those who had used said porcelain shelves shuddered at the memory. “It's INCHES away from you. I've never appreciated the water barrier so much.”
I turned to my boyfriend, who's remained uncharacteristically quiet during this conversation. I've started staying with him a lot, and last week I bought a toilet brush – although his pan was always immaculate, he didn't have one.
“You don't have anything against the brush, do you?”
He looked defeated, his terrible secret out at last. “I died a little inside when you bought it. I didn't say anything because it made you so happy”.
I'm dating a mummy-hand swabber.
Dearest loveliest followers and supporters.
I've been crowdfunding with Unbound for over a year now, and as neither of my targets have been met I regret that it's time to call it a day. Crowdfunding is a wonderful idea, and I have every faith in my projects, but it's not right for me, or my work.
Unbound is a fantastic company run by wonderful people, and I wish them and their authors every success.
This isn't the end of One Pound Stories (Salt Beef Jack), and there are many, MANY exciting things in development for Healthy Happy Hot - for updates please follow me on:
Again - I'm grateful for every pledge, every tweet and share and message. Not one went unnoticed, so thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I signed up to my first 10k eight weeks in advance, when I'd just hit 5k and wanted to aim for a new challenge. Over two months I trained three times a week, adding 5 minutes per week. My body felt like a new toy. I remember the triumph of running for 30 minutes, then 40, then 55. I was thrilled that I could run a whole 25 minutes as a compromise on the odd days when I really couldn't be bothered, when a short time earlier it had taken every fraction of my stamina to reach that. I was slow, but I didn't care. My first 5k took 40 mins, so I aimed to do 10k in 90. I didn't really care how long it took, I didn't care if I came last: I wanted to run the whole 10k, no stops, no walks.
The run wasn't particularly well-organised, and neither was I. It wasn't until the day before that I realised I had no information about start times or meeting places. When I searched online I discovered that there were no trains running on run day so I had to arrange a cab (at a hefty cost) with a 6.30am pick up time for the early start time of 8am, leaving time to queue for the racing number I still didn't have. But that wasn't the only nasty discovery I made.
“This race has a maximum time of 1hr 15 mins”.
This was because the lanes needed to be clear from the half marathon runners who had a later start time. Also – race? I'd signed up for a run – an act of running for a set distance, nothing more. Now it was a race – a running competition - with a time limit I was certain I couldn't meet. Anxiety seethed in my belly like a snake pit. I packed and repacked my bag – plasters, water, raincoat, hairpins, Rescue Remedy - certain I'd forget something important, I wouldn't be allowed to run, and I'd let down my charity and all the people who'd sponsored me.
On race day I felt sick with nerves. I was tense and irritable and I just wanted to be alone. I didn't want to be around anyone, particularly not 300 racers, each one looking as though they knew exactly what they were doing, swigging coconut water and dong special sexy stretches in special sexy pants with mesh panels behind the knee for strategic breathability. One lady was wearing knickers – actual running knickers, like Paula Radcliffe. “They must chafe like a bastard after the 40 minute mark” I thought, wan. After an inaudible announcement that I took to mean “the race is about to start”, we shuffled to the start line. Although I'd studied the map, I'd already lost what little sense of direction I had. I had no idea which way I was running, so I asked the women in front of me. “Just follow the crowd!” they beamed at me. Their kind smiles thawed the knot in my diaphram, and I realised I was excited. I'd noticed one of the women earlier. She was a strikingly large woman, her size 24 frame enrobed in fluorescent yellow lycra. “Are you running for a charity?” I asked her.”No, it's a personal challenge” she grinned. Adele was running 1000km – 600 miles – in the year between her 39th and 40th birthday. She was halfway through her challenge, running a combination of 10k and half-marathons. I told them it was my first 10k. “It's a great achievement. It's a very emotional thing too - don't be surprised if you cry at the end. Good luck, enjoy it!”.
The race began, and my queue friends ran ahead of me. As did the 300 other participants. I'm slow, I always knew I'd be slow, and I always said it didn't matter if I came last as long as I finished, but I've never been more daunted than I was then, left in the dust. There was one man running behind me as I trotted along the almost-empty course. When I came to the crossroads I stopped. There was no signposting. “Straight ahead!” the man behind me called, “over the bridge, then follow the other stewards!” I turned around and looked at him. My running mate was a steward, making sure the runtiest wildebeast in the herd found her way to the watering hole. I thanked him and jogged on, alone. Already there were uber-runners speeding back for their second lap, theirs legs like pistons. I felt a little envious, but more than that I was fascinated to watch ordinary people running. What they wore. How they moved their arms. Whether they managed the perfect midfoot-strike (I run on my heels, an awful habit I'm told). All ages, all body shapes. And yes, I may have been the runtiest wildebeast in the herd, but at that moment I was so proud to be part of it I honestly didn't care.
The race was split into two 5k laps. It took me forty minutes to finish the first, by which time I really was on my own. With no signposts and no stewards on hand, I found myself back at the start line, where the half-marathoners were gathering, snorting out hot steam and pawing the ground in ergonomic trainers. I was lost, and alarmed. If the half-marathon started now I'd be swept up in the stampede. I'd die like Mufasa. Anxiety welled up in me again. I couldn't find my track, I couldn't find a steward, and was losing time – I needed to finish. In desperation, I elbowed my way down a side street and nipped back onto the track. It may have been a tiny shortcut, but not much of one. I was on the go again, and I was completely over other runners, what they were doing and what they thought of me. By the time the marathoners started overtaking me I was totally lost in my own experience, just me and my legs and my lungs and the road and the cold grey sky. I saw Adele, towards the end of her second lap, and waved furiously, and nodded my appreciation at the stewards who yelled “keep going!” at the last remaining 10ker. I made room for faster runners, but I didn't stop or slow down (not that I could slow down much without stopping altogether). On the final fifty yards, I knew I'd done it, and different type of wobbly anxiety filled my belly. When Adele and her friend spotted me from the finish line and starting whooping applause, I burst into tears. I held my bosom, and tried to regulate my sobs as I ran. “Enjoy it!” yelled a steward, and I crossed the finish line to cheers. I wasn't distressed or unhappy – I cried like an ill-at-ease toddler, unable to articulate or identify my emotions. I remember that it didn't hurt, there was no discomfort, nor did I feel utterly exhausted. A weight had left me – I'd done it, I'd proven that I could do it, something that frightened me, and I clutched my medal as I wept tears of happiness and pride.
My school report says “Michelle is eight years old going on forty”. I'm a ponderous, cautious, old-headed kid who doesn't mix well with others my age. I live entirely in my own brain, in books, in stories. I've no interest in the kinetic world – I want to move as little as possible. I really want one of those reclining beds for old people that I've seen in adverts. I quite like the idea of being an invalid. Having a body seems like a very tedious bit of life admin. I discover that I'm fat when I'm nine years old. I am informed of the fact by a girl in my year:
“Michelle, I'd be lying if I said you weren't fat”.
It's so unfair. I don't like having a body. Other people don't like my having a body. So I begin to pretend I simply don't have one. I ignore it, try to disappear into the background as best I can, and keep my head down and buried in a book.
I fear and abhor physical exercise. I feel like a different species from every other girl in my year. The sporty girls, naturally, (one of whom has such body confidence that she wears a blue and yellow Adidas three-stripe two-piece to our swimming lessons, like Sporty Spice). Being that we're in rural Wales, there were also many, many girls who live on farms. Girls who can carry hay bails and fence posts. Girls who spend their weekends traversing acres of land to mend fences and tend to the livestock. Girls who complete the equivalent of one of those trendy tough mudder endurance challenges every weekend, summer and winter: staunch, stoic, strong, seeming unselfconcious girls, who seem to understand that their bodies are tools. Machines. Equipment.
I dodge school every Monday and Thursday for about two months. It doesn't feel like a lie when I tell my parents I have unbearable recurring stomach cramps – the anxiety is genuinely nauseating. The fear is carnal. The tears are real.
In hindsight, it's not as if I couldn't have performed the activity. I wasn't very fit, but I was young and otherwise healthy. My body was perfectly normal for a girl my age – in my mid-teens I was a size 10. And it wasn't the thought of engaging in physical exercise that terrified me. It was the thought of being watched and judged and found lacking. It didn't occur to me that everyone in the class would be too busy doing their own thing to watch and judge me. In my anxious and utterly self-obsessed teenage mind, I would be a target. I would be hurt, and in order to protect myself I had simply to omit that threat from my life by not engaging with it at all.
Really, I was still pretending I didn't have a body. It was easier than examining how I really about it. I disliked it intensely. I didn't like the way it looked when it moved. I didn't like the way it looked when it was still. When I dodged I'd sit at home and read and read and read until my brain was full as an egg.
I am through to the final round of auditions for a prestigious drama school. The audition is before a Shakespeare scholar – a man who knows every letter of every word Shakespeare has ever written (and quite a few that he may not have). I've chosen Cleopatra for my monologue because she is a Strong Woman (I have recently become a staunch supporter of Strong Women). I sit and watch Mr Scholar tear strips off participants who stand beautifully and speak beautifully, but aren't really engaged in the meaning of the words.
(It sounds obvious, but an actor really should understand the meaning of their lines. I auditioned for a Shakespeare play IN WELSH once where a boy recited the line “you kissed me once, on the lips” and pointed at his forehead).
I am abrim with anxiety, but I can't wait to perform for this man – I know that I know my shit better than anyone else in this room. I know THEIR speeches better than they do. I know I can withstand any interrogation about any editorial revisions (some classical works vary very slightly from edition to edition – a “thee” when there had been a “thou”, that kind of thing. This bastard had memorised every edition of every edition. But then, so have I. As I say, I know that I know my shit).
I know Cleopatra too, as best as a 19 year-old Welsh lass can. I know her pride. I know her churlishness. I know her sorrow. (I'm not saying I'm the lost Judi Dench of my generation. Although I could be. We'll never know. I'm just saying I worked hard.) I begin my audition. I keep my voice steady, my tone rich. I move around the space as I've been directed to by my drama teacher (“using the space” is VERY important in THE THEATRE), drawing imaginary pentagrams with my feet, keeping my mind's eye on the faithless Anthony, goading him, taunting him with (my)Cleopatra's beauty.
“Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brow's bent,
none our parts so poor but was a race of heaven...”
“NO. NO. NO. YOU'RE MAKING YOUR BODY LOOK UGLY”.
My breathe stops. His words are suspended in the air like icicles. It takes me a fraction of a second to compose myself, to ask cheerily “OK! What can I do to change that?”. I don't know how he responds. I just know the horror – the dry, inevitable horror – of having my fears confirmed. The thing is, he didn't say that my body IS ugly. It's not. Everything's in the right place, and everything works. I am MAKING it look ugly. I'm holding it wrong. Moving it wrong. Shaping it in a way which is aesthetically disagreeable. I am pretending to be the most beautiful woman who'd ever lived (can we agree not to examine that too closely, please?) and I'm failing because I can't even PRETEND to be the right kind of beautiful. And it didn't matter how well I know the play, how hard I've worked, it didn't matter that I'd lived with those stories in my heart and those words in my mouth for months. I'm not able to do what I yearn for because I didn't know how to make my body look beautiful.
P.S. I didn't go to drama school, but for a few years I remembered the names of those who did, and kept a very casual eye on how their careers were progressing. They're not up to much. So in a way, I win.
I start running after I experience a major depressive episode. I start running because I'm terrified. I've been bed-ridden for a week, crying because I was thirsty and I couldn't summon the energy to walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. I need a practical strategy to fix my brain. And I hate it. Leaving the flat feels like agony. I run for sixty seconds at a time, praying for respite. There are no endorphins, just numb relief when I'm finally allowed to go home and cry in the bath.
It took two belligerent, bloody-minded years for me to stop thinking of running as a chore. For the chorus of “this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit” to stop chugging through my head as I wheezed and panted around the neglected South London park. I ran for a few weeks at a time, then stopped because it was too hard or I was too lazy. I never put my trainers on without seething resentment weighing me down. A lot changed in that two years. I left a promising but unfulfilling career as an agent to make lattes and write. I went on holiday on my own. I joined Slimming World, and now I'm no longer lugging around an extra 15 pounds. When I started running again most recently, it felt different. It was no longer an endurance. I no longer prayed for respite. It no longer felt as though I was punishing my body. I was nurturing it. I felt good after running, and not just because of the smugness – the fabled endorphins finally turned up, making my nerves crackle and my breathe feel silky and cool in my lungs. It didn't hurt because I didn't push myself so hard I wouldn’t recover for two days. It felt like the opposite of helplessness and hopelessness. It felt like power.
I see toddlers in the park, roaring and rampaging and chasing squirrels and running with no destination and no impetus beyond “look there's a leaf I must dance with it and what happens if I stretch my hands up in the air and go BLAAAAARGH! This is fantastic I'm going to keep doing it BLAAAAAAARGH!!!” It's play. It's instinct. They are learning how to be human and part of that means grasping the mechanics of the vessel they're in. I must have done that once. But when you've spent 30 years avoiding exercise because you abhor it, it frightens you and you're terrible at it. it takes an enormous psychological shift to re-examine and overcome that fear. I've spent years telling myself I'm not defined by my body, in defiance of the signs and signifiers I'm bombarded with every day. The apparent primary goal of exercise is to get those abs – why should I want those abs? Why should I want to exercise? No thank YOU, cardiovascular health! Take your mental health benefits elsewhere! I'm not conforming to your body fascist beauty ideals!
I avoided exercise because moving my body meant admitting that I HAD a body, that I'd had one all along and that I'd been neglecting it. It's like checking your bank balance at the end of a decadent month, but when you haven't checked it for thirty years, and the balance is your life expectancy.
I try not to think about looking a particular way (a blatant lie – I'd love to have a flatter stomach and slimmer arms). But I think if I were the size and shape I am now and could run for an hour without stopping, I'd be delighted. I still grapple with the notion that I have to be good at running, that it's not enough to just DO it. Part of me still aspires to making my body look beautiful. To having grace. FINESSE. Of course what I really mean is that I wish I was more FEMININE in my movements. I want to be DAINTY. I wish to be a DELICATE WAIF-LIKE ETHEREAL FLOWER BUT I'M JUST NOT. I'm clumsy. I'm ungainly. I'm strong and I'm stoic, and it might take another two years but I'm going to finish the NHS couch25k podcast. It's meant to take nine weeks. So far it's taken me 140ish. Slow and steady and all that.
According to the amazing, AMAZING This Girl Can campaign, two million fewer women than men exercise regularly because they're concerned about the way they look. Two million women aren't enjoying the mental and physical health benefits of gentle exercise because they're afraid of their bodies. Our bodies are a tool. They're an integral part of our life experience. They're the connective tissue between our brains and our souls and all the wonderful things we have to enjoy in this world. If you neglect your body, you'll only ever live two-thirds of your life. For me, running is an act of self-love. It feeds my self esteem - it's a tangible demonstration that I care about myself enough to take an hour out of my day tending to something that belongs to me and only me. I'm currently working towards running 5k. I'd like to get to 10k eventually. No more. Stick your marathons up your arse. If I need to travel 26 miles I'll get a bus.