On vanity

Here’s something I never thought I’d struggle with: vanity.

I am not, as anyone who knows me will be surprised to hear, someone who spends a lot of time on my appearance. I wear make up for high days and work only, and I tend to tell hairdressers to “Do what you like”. (Admittedly this may be partly due to indecisiveness and lack of imagination). I’ve recently let my hair go back to its naturally curly state, and while this has required quite a bit of thought and getting used to, once it’s done, I don’t think about it, unless I catch sight of myself in a mirror.

It is surprisingly difficult to take a picture of the back of your own head.

I like clothes, but I’m terrified of being judged for what I look like, so rarely wear anything that would make me stand out in a crowd, even though those are often the clothes I love. I’m also too stingy to spend much money on clothes – although I have an unerring eye for the most expensive item of clothing in any magazine: it’s guaranteed to be the one I like. I keep my clothes for ever so they’re rarely up go date. Indeed I’m currently wearing a pair of pants I bought while pregnant with Lucy, and a t-shirt that has been carbon-dated to 2002.

In an ideal world I’d look effortlessly, and crucially, neatly, stylish. The sort of person who looks well put-together at all times, groomed and sleek. But I’m not that person. The problem is that the effortless look is, as effortless things often are, actually a lot of effort. I don’t have the budget or time for that, I’m too lumpy and bumpy to be sleek and no one ever described curls as groomed…. And mostly, at home, I’m ok with that.

So my appearance wasn’t really part of the packing and planning deal. I already had a number of black merino tops (they’re warm and wash well and were mostly bought to go under ski kit) so I bought some black bottoms to go with them. Plus a grey jumper with bright stars down the sleeves to add some (though not much) colour and stop me looking like a ninja. I stuck in a pair of zebra trainers too just because I didn’t want to be in Paris looking like I was about to tackle the North face of the Eiger.

And I hate it. I’m really struggling with the drab utilitarian nature of my clothes. I loathe all the black. In the pictures that have been taken of me I look frumpy and tired. Ben is no help as he thinks I look lovely whatever – which is obviously fabulous from a matrimonial perspective but utterly useless from an objective one.

I feel foolish and shallow for feeling like this and I feel as though I am letting my daughters, in particular, down. To them I am just “Mummy”; even Sophie, our fashionista, doesn’t notice my appearance unless I pile on the slap (red lipstick always gets a reaction), and that is perhaps as it should be. I certainly don’t want to let them start to feel that their sense of self-worth is tied up in their appearance. I never would have said that mine was, and I am disappointed in myself that this seems to be the case.

But the problem is, I don’t know what to do about it. My clothes and hair are, rightly, practical. We don’t want to spend money on new clothes and even if we did I wouldn’t know what to buy. Do practical and stylish clothes exist? Can they make a 5’4″, size 12, 43-year-old mother-of-4 look half her age and twice her height?

This is me. Woah, oh, oh, oh. Note moderately successful attempt at flattering selfie angle.

I could wear more make up or get a new hair cut, but again I wouldn’t know where to start and anyway is that a message I want to send the girls (and boy)?

I think part of my distress is the lack of control. The situation is what it is, I have the clothes, face and body I have and, exercise and slightly fewer waffles aside, there is little I can do about them now. This is, in a way, a metaphor for the whole trip. We are on this roller coaster and have to keep riding. Only micro adjustments allowed. There will constantly be things that are not quite right but which we will have to try to make work. Resilience will be required. I just didn’t necessarily expect it to be required so soon, and by me.

But my brand new bright pink puffer jacket (genuinely needed, and on super offer) may help too.


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  1. Hi Harriet. I
    I want you to know that you’re not alone in your predicament. As a mother of slightly older girls, who now use makeup and are very conscious of their style, I feel like life is sometimes flying past leaving me in the lay-by of Frumpington.
    When I went to the pub to saying my goodbyes to you both I thought you looked really fab. Red lips. Cool black spotty top and your hair looked so pretty. So girlfriend, you HAVE got it!! It’s just that you’ve packed it away for a few months. Just enjoy your journey, get a hat and keep smiling. Ben and the kids love you for you. Plenty time to glam up on your return.
    Just wait till Lucy, Aurora and Sophie discover their eyebrows!!
    They’ll sort you out. Mothers of daughters have the truest of judges.
    Get your pink puffer on, don the red lips and go conquer the world. Love you xxx

    • Oh please spare me the eyebrows!!!! Thank you though – right back at ya! Xxx

    • So – I am of the same general attitude to appearance… and I think I may have a solution to the monochrome pictures. ( which i understand are part of the conundrum) Scarves! Cotton, silk even ( shock) man made materials – Easy to pack, tonnes of colour, cheap to send back home if you accumulate too many of them and will brighten up ( and lengthen) every outfit. Also very helpful at shading from the sun, protecting from pollution and keeping your neck warm. Plus, might be fun to chose one in every fourth country you go to?
      Loving keeping up to date with your adventures, kisses to everyone.

      • You are not the only person to suggest this and scarves are now on my shopping list. Kicking myself for not either a) bringing one or b) buying one of the beautiful and surprisingly inexpensive ones I saw in the Rijksmuseum. One in every x countries though is a good idea!

  2. I think your dilemma is pretty much the same as most of us!
    If I had hair as thick as yours I would be happy.. Always wanted to have a short haircut that wouldn’t require lots of management, but mine unfortunately is very like new baby hair, and much to fine!
    Yes I love nice clothes, and they have their place in life. Personally I like to feel comfortable and practical on a everyday basis, and never seem to manage that casual look in any style that seems effortless to some.

  3. Harriet,you are far too tough on yourself – you look great, albeit in a rugged way, but that’s appropriate for your type of travelling! I’ll confirm the provisional haircut in St P – I think she is good but can be over enthusiastic but you will have more. Control than I do with your perfect french. Waxing is booked and the new girl is very thorough (I thought).love reading the blogs – hope you all have time to keep them up.
    Our news is Hawksbill is full of genial folk – many well known repeaters and all the old staff, have our lovely big room with working aircon, won’t mention anything about the food, but we went out for a very swanky meal on Hugh’s birthday which was far too fussy but the setting really stunning – so all the usual unlike your constant assault on all your senses -what experiences you will all be having, thinking of you all. Jane.

  4. So here’s my take on it Harriet I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing you’re looking at things you’re not happy about like your lumps and bumps (I am and will always be the Queen of the lump and bump so please don’t even think about taking my crown) Or what your hair looks like or what you’re wearing. What you maybe need to realise is that for a lot of women including me you are a ballsy adventurous talented woman who is doing something that most people would not have the capacity to organise plan and execute. So hold onto that shake your lovely curly mane wear your ninja clothes with pride and enjoy every moment of what’s around you because you’re taking these travels not only for you but for the women who maybe who don’t have your guts! Always remember that the people other people admire don’t always have to be the prettiest the tallest the thinnest wearing colourful clothes what they usually are, are strong powerful woman. I feel like you are our foreign correspondent and I bet Kate Aide never checked that she had bright coloured clothes sleek hair and all looked just so but yet she was the most admired correspondent of all because she was authentic and real and relatable and that my dear cousin is your strength so may I encourage you to focus on those because they are what make you fabulous !! Love ya xx

    • You are absolutely right as always. Does it make me a bad person though that I’d rather be Kate Adie with good hair?! 😂

  5. Lovely Harriet I 100% hear you. Being a natural born goth destined to feel happiest in black I have in the last year embraced more colour at last – emerald green today (with acres of black naturally). And it feels good. Try a charity shop or two as well as the super duper offers. And the pink puffa sounds great. I completely agree that you’re doing an amazing thing but also can see that with all those photos you want to feel good. Go pre-loved colour!! B xx

    • Weirdly charity shops seem quite hard to find. I dont know if they’re a British thing (surely not) or whether it’s just that we’ve been in major cities so far. How weird though that youd rather be in black when I’m hating it! We should swap wardrobes! Although my merino and easy wash is probably not very 66LIF appropriate!

  6. Harriet, I sympathise, having once done a two-month trip, but it was in a hot climate so I did at least pack colourful items. Go to charity shops, buy stuff that gives you joy, leave it at a charity shop when it’s had its time. If you ever stay in Youth Hostels, they tend to have (these days) boxes of kit/shoes left behind by travellers, you just help yourself, leave stuff behind, as you see fit. You MUST include a pamper session at some point, or just paint your nails with your daughters as girlie-time, it is necessary! Oh, I do sound shallow and vain!

    • There’s definitely a time and a place for shallow and vain! Charity shops are definitely on the list though we have seen surprisingly few: there was an Oxfam shop in Louvain today but that was one of the ones that sells lovely hand made things and not useful cast offs. I had high hopes of the small town we have just arrived in, Rommerskirchen, but despite 4 supermarkets and 2 separate alcohol mega stores, not a charity shop in sight…

  7. You are lovely! I do sympathize–I once backpacked around Europe and had to throw away my limited wardrobe when I got home because I hated them so much. (They weren’t fit to donate.) I love color tho and it influences my mood. I don’t think I could survive in a black, grey, navy or beige world. I tend to wear pants/trousers in neutrals but with brightly colored tops. And scarves are easy to throw on to add a burst of color.

    • Thank you! For the compliment and the tip! I will have to get scarf shopping I think – though as for the next few days I will mostly be wearing a Where’s Wally outfit (all will be revealed) I won’t be able to complain about lack of colour….

  8. So – I am of the same general attitude to appearance… and I think I may have a solution to the monochrome pictures. ( which i understand are part of the conundrum) Scarves! Cotton, silk even ( shock) man made materials – Easy to pack, tonnes of colour, cheap to send back home if you accumulate too many of them and will brighten up ( and lengthen) every outfit. Also very helpful at shading from the sun, protecting from pollution and keeping your neck warm. Plus, might be fun to chose one in every fourth country you go to?
    Loving keeping up to date with your adventures, kisses to everyone.

  9. IN winter: the Steve Jobs look – black polo neck, black jeans, possibly “statement” necklace or scarf (not the Theresa May look, tho) and as soon as you reach warmer climes, a riot of colour and frills.

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