Right now, as I write, I’m glancing down at the bright red Shellac polish on my nails. My eyelash extensions are stirring up a breeze around my eye area. My blonde hair extension bonds are drying, wrapped in a towel. It occurs to me that my toes match my fingernails, and my legs are freshly waxed. Not to go too deep into it, but those dark hairs on my upper lip? They’ve been… actioned.
Have you got a picture of me in your head? It’s probably not anything like what I look like. But you’re probably judging me already – fake, superficial, high maintenance – and on a very basic level you’re absolutely right. There are parts of me right now that genes didn’t provide. I don’t have the thick hair some women are blessed with, or the strong, shiny nails. And I am submitting to the societal expectation that I should be basically hairless from the HD eyebrows down.
Do I care that you’re judging me?
I’d love to say no. I’d love to proudly declare, “Not even a little bit” and be unfailingly confident about it. But I do care, actually. I’m an eldest child, an Aquarian too, and for those reasons and more, I care deeply about what people think of me, both physically and otherwise – but for the purposes of this woeful tale, I’m focusing on the physical.
(And just to get it out of the way early, this here is about physical insecurity and yes I am aware that there’s more to life than my physical appearance.)
That’s why this month I’m compelled to explain myself, and tell you all exactly why I used to think being ‘high maintenance’ was the preserve of a certain type of woman, and why I no longer believe that at all. The ‘maintenance’ I carry out is all down to my own insecurities, and I am extremely morto to admit them, but here we go.
To get the obvious out of the way, the industry I’m in puts a lot of pressure on me to fit to certain criteria I would otherwise ignore. I’m a beauty editor and sometimes I have to go on TV as part of my job. I never realised before how damaging it can be to one’s self-esteem to see oneself on television next to other, slimmer, better looking and more confident people (in case you wondered: VERY damaging) So in a way, I feel like I HAVE to look a certain way to carry out my job properly.
Next, I’ll try to convey how being high maintenance actually means I’m extremely low maintenance. Are you laughing yet? Maybe you should be. But honestly, putting the effort in to get these various treatments and add-ons makes it easier for me to be lazy on a day-to-day basis.
When I have lash extensions in, I don’t have to wear much make-up. I can get up in the morning, wash my face and then start my day without feeling self-conscious; going make-up free. There’s a lot to be said for a decent set of eyelashes, lads.
My naturally very fine, very thin, very fair hair takes a long time to wrangle into something that looks presentable. I backcomb, I spray, I tease. I am rarely left with something that I’m happy with. For me, my hair is undoubtedly the difference between feeling good about myself and not. So I get hair extensions, and even after three days of no hair-washing, half a can of dry shampoo and four nights’ sleep, they, miraculously, help my hair to look good.
As a child (and as an adult) I bit my nails, and the skin around my nails. Dermatophagia is an obsessive-compulsive disorder where anxiety causes you to pick at and bite your own skin, and I have been doing that since I was about five. That’s 22 years.
It started around the time my little sister was born, when for some reason I developed an acute fear that she’d be kidnapped. Anxiety stirred and dermatophagia began. My mother was driven demented telling me to stop biting my nails (“You’ll get gangrene and your fingers will fall off/Santa won’t come/No boy will ever want to hold your hand!”) The long and short of kicking that little habit off is that the tops of a few of my fingers are scarred and often very, very red. I still bite my skin on particularly anxious days when I’m left alone with my own thoughts. I’m mortally embarrassed about the whole thing and wish there wasn’t such a perceivable way to tell I’m stressing out.
So anyway, in an effort to make myself feel better about the state of my hands, I get regular manicures, embarrassedly explaining away the redness on my fingers to the therapist, and getting only red nail polish because any neutral colours will bring out the redness in my fingers.
By the way, I haven’t talked about my embarrassing condition to my family or even my closest friends, glossing casually over it for years, but I felt it was necessary to admit here, in the interest of full disclosure.
I use fake tan because I have keratosis pilaris, and classically ‘Irish’ skin that is as irritatingly multi-coloured as Joseph’s jacket. I get facials because my skin is the one thing I receive compliments on. I know that it’s down to genetics and I’m terrified it too will let me down one day. And I wear very expensive make-up because I feel like I have no cheekbones, my lips are too small and my eyebrows are full of gaps.
Please tell me that some of you are nodding along to this, hearing what I’m saying about insecurities being masked by a veil of high maintenance behaviour?
I would love not to feel the pressure to do these things. You might think I’m silly and weak for conforming, and look, I probably am. You may also argue that I’m placing too much value on what I’m offering the world physically instead of in any other area. But it boils down to this. I don’t think what I have going on naturally is good enough.
I think as a friend, a family member and a colleague, I try to be conscious, kind, generous, friendly and loving. And outside of the purely physical, I think I am a good person. But when it comes to me feeling confident about what I look like, I have huge issues. My dad and previous boyfriends all assured me I am beautiful, but there’s no bigger source of bias than a loving dad and boyfriend, so naturally I have never believed them.
As for where the feeling comes from of not being physically good enough? I work in women’s magazines.
I pore over pictures of celebrities (Botox and Photoshop and facelifts, oh my) all day. I talk constantly to people about having better skin, thicker hair, longer eyelashes, fuller brows. It’s become a part of me to value and place huge importance on physicality, more than I ever have in my whole life (or ever thought I would, to be honest).
And while I think my work adds to the sense of unworthiness, it’s not where it started. I’m pretty sure I developed my sense of ‘you need more products and a lot of help to just look acceptable’ because of other girls – friends of mine, in fact. I was never the funniest, I was never the skinniest, I was never the most bubbly, the one the boys wanted to talk to (kiss). And I guess it was a case of keeping up with the Joneses for me – I felt like being ‘just’ me wasn’t getting the the attention I felt I deserved from the world, and hell, if the rest of my friends were pencilling their brows and killing the game, I might as well try it.
Again, I’m hoping someone is identifying here. What you look like, as much as I am loathe to admit it, has become a massive feature of life as a woman in 2015, what with social media and all, and so maybe I’m not the only one who feels or has felt like this.
I used to think all of the add ons, make-up and maintenance was indicative of someone who’s obsessed with their looks and wants everyone to think they’re gorgeous. But now I know that it can be about someone who feels less than, just trying to make themselves feel more confident and at ease in their life.
I read somewhere recently that once you accept who you are and what you look like, your life will change. I’m honestly hoping that day arrives for me soon. I know who I am, I like who I am. But I hate what I look like, from every angle, and I hate constantly chasing physical improvement. Most of all, I hate that women everywhere compete (on a mostly subconscious basis) with each other to be prettier, more well-dressed, more photogenic, more appealing to whomever they’re trying to attract.
I genuinely wish that one day every single woman who’s ever taken a foundation brush to her face would forgo the process of make-up, hair and the rest. An even playing field for females, with nothing but their natural selves to play with. Just to see how we’d all get on. I’d be one unemployed beauty editor – but hey. Maybe we’re worth it?
Aisling Keenan is the deputy editor of Xposé Magazine and occasional pops up on the TV and radio. She blogs at Think What You Like and tweets at @aislingmkeenan. When asked if she wanted to add anything to her columnist bio, Aisling said, “Say that I always drive like I’m following the racing line in an F1 race.” So don’t get caught in a drag race with her.