There isn’t a huge amount of difference between what I look like now and what I looked like at 20. Firstly because the difference between 20 and 30 isn’t really that much, physically speaking. I certainly have a few more lines on my forehead, but realistically, I look the same. I still have the same shoulder-length hair. I am still the same basic shape, give or take a bit of squinting. Even my clothes are relatively similar: a lot of colourful hoodies and vest tops over jeans, followed by sporadic evidence of owning the film Factory Girl on DVD. I have exactly the same percentage of my face given over to spots now as I did at 20. The only tangible differences are a blunt-cut fringe, a slightly rounder face, and a tendency towards body paint.
I look at who I was at 20 and I recognise her. I can draw a straight line from her to me.
I look at myself at 22 and I think: who the fuck is that?
Everything I put on my body between the ages of 22 and 24 makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s like the wardrobe of a fifty year-old woman who exclusively arranges Macmillan coffee mornings and the wardrobe of a fifteen year old mall goth were smashed together, and while I have a great respect for both these categories of woman, you have to admit that they don’t belong on a woman of 23.
Here were some of my ‘go-to’ clothing staples, during those ages:
an aubergine wraparound cardigan!
a pinstripe blazer with a safety pin broach!
heeled black trainers, paired uncomfortably with-
-several black polyester pencil skirts!
A-line vintage ‘style’ dresses covered in cherries, anchors, stamps, penny farthing bicycles, regular bicycles, and cats. Made cheaply, generous to big boobs, worn once on a sweaty May picnic and then discarded because of the deodorant marks that won’t come out.
a half-dozen knee length dresses with capped sleeves, all extremely tight and in matronly colours, particularly navy. Always navy! I do not know why I spent so many years owning navy garments, and burgundy garments, and other shades that a rich person might paint the feature wall in their living room but never actually wear. I was so conscious of visible panty lines, visible bra straps, visible sweat patches, visible anything, that I would much rather pour my body into maroon sausage casing than actually show a hint of skin. The dominant physical memory of those years were of being constricted. Everything tight, everything a squeeze. Every dress too small, every pay packet too small, every rented bedroom too small. I was very into being a silhouette and very not into having flesh.
Knee-high high-heeled leather boots, presumed to be conservative because of their similarity to the bougie riding boots you see on Sloaney women. I bought these boots at the Elephant & Castle street market and paired them with my many cap-sleeved dresses. From the waist up, I looked like a Fox News presenter, and from the waist down, I looked like I handed out fliers for a titty bar.
My ‘going out’ outfits were just the Fox News dresses, but with no tights.
Every eight months I would get my hair cut into the kind of choppy, high-maintenance bob that really needs to be cut every two months and styled every day. Ditto on the colour: a stylist I was friendly with would spend several hours dying it a beautiful, shimmering auburn, and then I would let it grow out for a year.
The culmination of this was that I always looked conservative but harried, like I had been dragged through a bush backwards on the way to an investor’s meeting. The cute dresses and little flairs of self-expression from two years previously – houndstooth caps! turquoise boots! – had disappeared. My mum would often sigh and say that she missed my hat collection.
It was, overall, not an unhappy time. I was in good relationship, and I was making nice friends, and I was slowly starting to earn enough money to live. My utter lack of confidence or cohesion when it came to my physical appearance wasn’t evidence of a depression so much as it was evidence of an uncertainty.
“I didn’t know who I was” feels easy; I think what’s more accurate is that I didn’t know who anyone else was. I was trying to imitate office life but still had a very vague notion of what offices were, who went to them, and what they thought of me. I thought I was aping the people around me, but the imitation was so out-sized and badly observed it veered into a kind of Office Drag.
I find it heartening that my wardrobe today – check trousers, flowery crop top, big glasses and Nike sliders – has more in common with myself ten years ago than myself, say, eight years ago. I am thirty in a couple of weeks, and while I do feel my age – and look it – I generally feel lighter on my feet than I did for most of my early 20s.
this is not a “don’t worry about getting older” piece. This is not a “don’t take yourself too seriously” piece. It is merely a plea to all young women to consider getting simpler haircuts, and to wear less burgundy.