Hairy Mary

Well, not really; not unduly … just a brown eyed brunette, so on a (female) hairiness scale of one to 10 I’m probably about a six. It became a slight issue at the age of 12, when a group of older girls started taunting me with the term ‘werewolf’ on account of my eyebrows meeting in the middle. I mean, they didn’t go right across in one thick, unbroken caterpillar, but there were a few hairs beginning to stray from either side into no man’s land and because they were dark they were particularly noticeable. I spoke to my mum, and she grabbed some tweezers and dutifully plucked out the offending hairs (I think I would have been more tempted, in her position, to punch out the offending girls). From then on I started tweezing on my own and, 29 years later, I’m still going, despite previously having vowed to free myself forever from the tyranny of the monobrow via electrolysis by my 40th birthday. (Too skint, naturally.)

Soon afterwards began the rise of the moustache (again, I’ve seen worse on plenty of other women but it did bother me), on which I used Jolen bleach for facial hair every week or two. So I was still hairy, but it was less noticeable because it was fair (until the roots came through, of course, at which point it looked just plain weird). I then switched to Immac cream, which Mum also used. I persevered with Immac (now Veet) cream for years, because it did the job and a tube lasted a long time, but it had its pitfalls: if I left it on a minute too long it would leave my skin red, sore and dehydrated for several days, and I needed to use it at least once a week because it only took off surface hair rather than pulling it out by the root. This would have been in addition to the ‘usual’ depilation,  consisting of a quick flick of a razor on legs and under pits, which remains an almost daily ritual.

As if all this wasn’t enough, I’m becoming increasingly aware that today’s eyebrows are supposed to be far more preened than was previously acceptable, but the cost of threading or waxing is, in my opinion, pretty steep. Having never been professionally ‘waxed’ at all, I had a look at the price lists of local beauticians. It seems lip/chin combo waxing ranges from £9 to £11.50, eyebrow reshaping is around £10, and a full leg and bikini wax will set you back £28-£30. If, like me, you’re a bit of a hairy Mary and will require repeat treatments two or three weeks later, the cost quickly escalates.

This is where Veet waxing strips, those fabulous, cheap, ready-to-go pre-coated strips available everywhere for about a fiver, have saved me a small fortune (which I’ve then carelessly blown on other stuff). I like to buy them in a maxi pack of 40 strips, which comes with 4 perfect finish wipes for removing any residue (not nearly enough, but you can substitute baby oil or – my preferred option – coconut oil). A pack of this size will last me ages; months and months. I use the strips on my thighs and bikini line, moustache, chin (occasionally. That one was a shocker. Thought it wouldn’t happen until I was at least 89), and also to remove stray hairs from beneath my brow line and – at holiday time only – on my big toes. I couldn’t believe it when I heard someone say they actually paid to have their big toes waxed by a beautician …

A word of warning: read the pack first, as you have to be careful with certain skin conditions and apparently waxing is unsuitable if you are diabetic. As with any kind of hair removal, you might have a bad reaction and also, it does hurt. In short, wax at your own risk -! Then again, all that would apply at the beautician’s too and at least this way you’re saving money.

If you decide to go ahead, start somewhere safe like a leg, and if you are going to wax any facial area use those strips specifically for sensitive skin (I don’t, and have always been fine, but Veet says I’m wrong). When you’re ready to start, here is my advice:

  1. Cut the strips into the correct size for your requirements. It is extremely difficult to work with a great big unwieldy bit of sticky paper unless you’re clearing a large area like a thigh. If you’re waxing your bikini line, this is even more important, especially as you’ll find such an operation already involves a great deal of bending, reaching and stretching (as well as some light hopping).
  2. Make sure the wax is warm, by rubbing the strip between your hands.
  3. Separate the two sides of the strip slowly. If you rip them apart you’ll end up with both sides unevenly coated.
  4. Smooth the section of waxing strip on your skin in the direction of hair growth then, holding the skin taut, rip it back on itself – right back, not upwards. Explete to your heart’s content (you’re in the comfort of your own home, after all).
  5. Finish with one of the wipes or, if a small area, some coconut oil. It’s lovely stuff – goes on solid from the jar but melts into your skin and can be removed with dampened cotton wool. Leaves you feeling soft and smelling larvely.

Big Daughter recently asked me to neaten up her eyebrows, as she felt they were getting a bit messy. I thought they looked fine, but did as she asked and took a few photos along the way. Incidentally, the two tiny slivers of waxing strip I used probably cost less than a penny each.

‘Raw’ eyebrow
Teeny, custom-cut Veet strip
A smudge of this, to remove any residue
The end result (redness faded within an hour)

The Evil Corporate Giant: How I Hate to Love You

Another post which I feel requires a disclaimer at the top. Let me just say that I think Aldi and Lidl (Aldi in particular) are brilliant. My parents shopped at both of them years before their popularity explosion with middle class, middle income families (for whom the discovery is still sufficiently recent to provoke a heartwarming childlike giddiness – aw, bless!), and so do I.

However, I confess quite openly (as is becoming my way when blogging) that I do the majority of my household shopping at Tesco. The reason is, quite simply, the Clubcard. I am eternally indebted to my friend Sarah for educating me on how to get the best out of my Clubcard. (If you are already a convert, feel free to stop reading.) If you shop at Tesco and do not have one you need to sign up right now. If things are even more dire and you are one of those people who have signed up, get your vouchers through and simply use them for face value towards your grocery shopping, then you run the risk of me snatching them out of your hand at the till and shouting “Nooooooo! It’s such a waste!!”

The way it works, in brief, is that you sign up for your Clubcard and then you get a point for every pound you spend (sometimes more, depending on offers) and these points are translated into vouchers. Four times a year the vouchers are posted to you. In my case I usually get around £25 each time, which also takes into account any money Alex or I have spent on fuel. This is the bit where people often go wrong, thinking “Great! £25 off my food bill.” Stop right there, though: go online and look at the ways you can get more for your vouchers. I believe you can get all kinds of things through Tesco Direct for double the value, and sometimes you can get double the value on clothes in-store too.

BUT: the best value is for days out (from which there are loads and loads to choose, all over the UK and at various venues beyond) or meals out, because these give you FOUR TIMES the value of your vouchers. You simply choose what you want, click on it to put it in your basket, then input the voucher codes.

Now, if a meal out or fun family day somewhere is definitely not on the cards within three months of receiving your vouchers and you need to buy a washing machine then OK, go ahead and use double the value to put towards it. If you are genuinely on the breadline, then fine, make a straight swap for food and I promise I won’t hassle you (though in this case I would shop at Lidl or Aldi and save the vouchers). If, however, there is a chance (and I think in most families there would be) that within that three month period you might really fancy dinner at Prezzo or a trip to Woburn Safari Park (or any number of other restaurants or fab days out) for free, then for goodness’ sake hang on to them. Just make sure you exchange them in good time. Restaurant tokens are generally emailed through within about half an hour these days, but days out tokens still come by post and take a few days.

To give you an idea, here is a list of exciting, fun, interesting and often educational places we have visited over the years as a family, for free, for doing nothing more than shopping at Tesco:

  • Wicksteed Park (multiple times)
  • Cadbury World
  • Flambards in Cornwall
  • Warwick Castle
  • Devon’s Crealy
  • Kent’s Cavern in Devon
  • Thinktank in Birmingham
  • Black Country Living Museum
  • Conkers in Derbyshire
  • Diggerland in Kent
  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not
  • Park Asterix (while on holiday in France)
  • Activity World in Peterborough (multiple times; watch out for the 7-year-old skinheads, though: intimidating)
  • Woburn Safari Park (Clubcard was having a sale so we got 5 times the vouchers’ value!)
  • Duxford Imperial War Museum
  • Britain at War Experience
  • Vedettes de Paris boat excursion (we ordered these, but ended up not using them so Tesco just recredited our account)

Meals out have usually been at Pizza Express, Prezzo and Chimichanga, with us only having to shell out for drinks and tip.

You can’t lose, really: if it’s great, which it almost always has been for us, then wonderful. If it’s not so good, you don’t end up berating yourself for having spent a ton of money. Warwick Castle and Woburn are particularly satisfying to visit ‘on the Clubcard’ because they cost a fortune.

Perhaps the best use of our Clubcard points, however, was setting up an automatic conversion to Virgin air miles when we knew that four years down the line we hoped to travel to Orlando. Again, this was quick and easy to do online. We did miss the days out (though there are plenty of free places we love to visit), but the points kept on ticking away and, when the time came, although dates were tricky and Alex had to spend a long time on the phone to an operator, we ended up with an incredible deal that saved £1500 on our flights AND included a free return seat for Little Daughter (who was just under two at the time and would otherwise have had to sit on my lap – I don’t mean we were contemplating leaving here there …). There were even enough points left over for Alex and I to fly to Edinburgh, on one of Little Red’s last trips, for our joint 40th birthday celebration weekend. After that, with the points exhausted and no further flights on the horizon, I switched our Clucbard points right back and we’re now getting the vouchers again.

On a weekly basis, I have no doubt I would save some money if I shopped solely at Lidl or Aldi, though I am not sure how much as I can now manage a week’s shop at Tesco, for a family of five (including washing powder, toothpaste etc) for £60. At a generous estimate, though, say I saved £15 … would I really put that weekly £15 into a savings account and refuse to touch it until it had grown into a £1500 holiday fund? Or would it more likely be guzzled up by a school trip or unwelcome car repair? You have to remember that I have had years of being crap with money. We’re currently having a particularly lean month because, as a self-employed music teacher, my income tails off around April and doesn’t pick up again until September, but I’ve got £40 of Pizza Express vouchers and £80 of generic Days Out vouchers in the kitchen for when we get really fed up. The fuel thing is good too: if I time it right I can get 20p per litre off a full tank of diesel, which amounts to a saving of around £10.

My ideal would be to buy about half my weekly shop from Tesco, some bits from Lidl and other bits from Aldi (which, maddeningly, is 11 miles away and involves shuffling in traffic for quite a while), but I am not sufficiently time-rich to manage this. So for now I continue to be in league with the evil corporate giant. Soulless it may be, and unfashionable it definitely is, but it works for me.

Settled or Settling For?

Window-gazing, at one time or another
In the course of travel, you must have startled at
Some coign of true felicity. “Stay!” it beckoned.
“Here live your life out!”
                                                                               Robert Graves

That is how I would have liked to arrive at the place – namely, St Neots, a fairly unremarkable East Anglian market town that nevertheless boasts various accolades, according to Wikipedia – in which I have remained for the past 16 years and look set to stay for many more.

In reality my arrival couldn’t have been more different. I was working in London, Alex was working near Cambridge and Peterborough was a bit too far from either (and we’d been burgled while living there, which can put you off a place). So we looked at towns along the train route, as Cambridge and London themselves were way out of our financial league and, with a bit of a shrug, agreed on St Neots. It’ll do for now, I thought, as we moved our meagre possessions and goldfish Rod, Herman and Herman’s Friend (think about it) into our shabby, rented, one-bedroomed house next door to a particularly ropey pub.

It’ll do until our careers take off, I told myself as we took out a 100% mortgage to purchase our small Victorian terrace in a more salubrious area of the town.

Well, I do like the church, and we know and like the vicar, I reasoned, when we made the easy decision to get married in the stunning mediaeval parish church.

And it’s fitting to have our babies baptised in the same place, I conceded, as first Francesca and then Toby came into our lives; and we do need a bigger house, and Francesca’s enjoying her playgroup, and we have made some lovely friends … as we took a step up the ladder and moved into our current abode.

“You do know you live in catchment for Ernulf?” several concerned friends pointed out to us, referring to the less successful of the two local secondary schools. I didn’t bat an eyelid. We won’t be anywhere near St Neots by the time Francesca starts secondary school, I thought, almost indignantly. We’ll be living in some gorgeous village in Dorset. I found it depressing, and vaguely alarming, that anyone with a young family would accept that they were going to stay in St Neots for the duration.

On reflection, I don’t know why the thought bothered me that much. There’s nothing particularly wrong with poor old St Neots. It has some quite pretty bits, actually, and apparently these day’s it’s a “thriving commercial centre” too. Hmm. Maybe it’s because, for me, it was always going to be my transitional place. It was convenient; functional in relation to our jobs at the time (the rail links, admittedly, are excellent). I was never going to stay.

So where (and when!?) was I going to go?

Whenever I catch an episode of Wanted Down Under I become absurdly drawn in and end up practically aching for the family to emigrate, regardless of the tearful tributes from their nearest and dearest tugging at their heartstrings. I don’t understand why: I am not an adventurous person, I suffer with anxiety and I have a phobia of aeroplanes. I don’t deal well with change. I’ve never had wanderlust as such, unlike my cousin who has travelled extensively (and lived abroad) with her young family. Yet I still find it incredibly difficult to accept that, for us as a family, St Neots will be … it. Job done. It feels so final, and so finite; a mighty shutting down of horizons.

Occasionally, if Alex is feeling particularly fed up at work, he will apply for a job overseas. He feels an affinity to the States, so more often than not the job in question will be in America. He knows his chances are practically zero, because there would have to be no suitable American candidates (pretty unlikely), but it’s still exciting because there’s that molecule of hope. I pester him for news more frequently than with the UK applications, and start mentally planning … or rather, I picture the huge, immaculate house with pool and aircon that I have decided will (quite deservedly) be bestowed on us as part of the relocation package, with friendly neighbours calling round with fruit baskets and the Florida sun beating down, and unlimited flights ‘home’, and Disney five times a year, and friends and family coming over to visit us and being impressed. Oh yes, I think to myself as I waft around all serene and tanned, wearing white linen and those Greek goddess sandals, this is the real us. We’ve arrived now. Did you really think we were going to stay in that tired, cramped end of terrace in St Neots for ever …?

Back to St Neots. The vicar who married me and Alex, and who baptised Francesca and Toby, retired and moved away, and I lost my connection with the church and, some time later, my Christian faith … for a while the sense of not belonging, of needing to move on, was very profound. But it’s strange how imperceptibly yet inevitably the roots go down, even when you tell yourself you are just treading water. Francesca is now a teenager and is settled at the same secondary school that Toby will attend come September, and Little Daughter (Nancy) spends two days a week with a fantastic childminder. I have a good work-life balance. I have made friends here that I know are with me for the long haul; friends who have seen me through some seriously rocky times, and who in turn I have tried to support when they’ve needed me. We are less than an hour’s drive from both sets of parents. Alex’s sister and her husband have also settled here, and I find it hard to imagine moving away from them and my two young nieces who, being Nancy’s age, are in some ways more akin to siblings than her own much older brother and sister.

Maybe I’ve become increasingly uneasy about this whole issue recently because of the potential guilt over relocating the children … or maybe it’s to do with my envy and frustration that so many of our friends are ‘doing better’ than we are, and my dark, inner sense of entitlement longs to escape the scrimping and scraping … or perhaps it’s because I’m in my early forties and the phrase ‘now or never’ is starting to plague me. But the thing that niggles me the most is knowing that if Alex turned round to me tomorrow and said “I’ve been given my dream job with Disney! Shall we go for it? Relocate to Florida?”, my answer would be “I don’t know”.

Being Mini

In the year 1948 God made my mother. He made her well, and by the time her wedding day arrived 24 years later she had long, thick, brown-black hair, a beautiful face, shapely legs, a neat little waist and a rack to die for. The years rolled by and she matured into ever greater voluptuousness, and rumour has it that the same bloke who had said “I do” on that particular wedding day recently responded to the sight of her running with the comment “Melons in a sack”.

In 1974 God made me. He made me well, and on my wedding day 26 years later I had shiny, mid-brown hair, a decent face, shapely legs, a neat little bottom, the ghost of a waist and an uber-padded, underwired, gel-filled, cleavage enhancing bra that just about sustained the illusion of a pair of B-cups.

In 2002 God made my first daughter. He made her exceedingly well, and by the time she was 12 she had bigger boobs than her mum.

Damn. I promised myself I’d make my first post on this topic about being generally small/thin, and not focus on the boobage issue, but it seems I can’t help myself. A few years ago I went bra shopping with my mum in John Lewis: shrinking violet that she is, she bought something purple in a K cup, a size I hadn’t realised even existed, and I bought something in a 32A (this was in my slightly bustier days, before the arrival of daughter number two). I know God is purported to love wondrous variety, but don’t you think he was having a bit of a laugh at my expense, juxtaposing physical extremes in this way?

A  couple of points (ho ho) I should address: I know, intellectually and in terms of the profound gratitude I feel for my good health and for having been able to breastfeed my three babies, that bust size does not really matter (same with men and their willies: as long as everything’s healthy and working, size doesn’t matter, right? Right?) I’m also being flippant about God (sorry), as I’m sure he’s got better things to worry about than my flat chest. I too have better things to worry about, and worry about them I do … but the sorry fact remains, however superficial it renders me, that pretty much every day since I can remember I have wasted at least a few seconds of precious time fretting about having no boobs.

Part of the reason for my ongoing dissatisfaction is that I’m reminded of this petty irritation on a daily basis. If clothes fitted me,  or I could afford to have them tailor made, there wouldn’t be an issue. But buying well-fitting, age-appropriate clothes within my budget has proved virtually impossible. The seemingly universal clothing manufacturers’ rejection taunts me at every turn: The reason women’s clothes do not fit you is that you are the wrong shape: so wrong, in fact, that you are off the spectrum. Real women have curves. Here are some nice big bras for proper women; voluptuous women; feminine women. Here’s yet another gaping v-neck to show off the cleavage you ought to have. Don’t like it? Go and shop in the kids’ section, then, and to hell with what’s left of your sense of womanliness. “Bones are for the dog; meat is for the man”, I once read on Facebook, endorsed with several thousand ‘Likes’.

Hmm. I can’t help thinking about the amount of fakery it would take to mutilate my body into the image of a ‘real’ woman; surely the last word in irony.

Needless to say, I never had a boob job. I was always either too skint or too scared. I did come close to it once or twice, though. I also tried herbal compounds and different types of contraceptive pill (only ever made me nauseous), as well as every bra I could find that claimed it could boost my bust by up to two cup sizes (rubbish: in my extreme case, all these bras did was create a kind of moulded crater in which my tiny boobs floundered and on to which the top I was wearing would settle, creating a weird ridge). I even tried a hypnosis CD, but the feminist in me bristled as soon as I heard a man’s voice telling me that I deserved to be ‘more feminine’ (how dare he!? Say that to Kylie, would he!?) To add insult to injury, he had a speech impediment, and in truth all was lost the moment he uttered the words “bweast enlargement pwogwamme”.

Deep breath and move on.

I know that this loathsome self-pity and waste of my emotional resources must end. I’m still working on that, but in the meantime I did decide that it was crazy to continue wearing uncomfortable, underwired, gel-filled bras when there is nothing to support and they don’t even fit. So it was out with shop bought, ill-fitting 32As and in with bras designed for genuinely small (AND real!) women from Little Women and the splendidly named Know Knockers  I never thought buying bras would be enjoyable, but I cannot recommend either of these sites highly enough. Know Knockers in particular is a real joy: instead of the bras being sported by 20-year-old busty beauties, they are modelled by Sheila, in all her middle-aged, small-busted glory (and I mean that – she really does look good!) She also gives helpful hints and tips on whether a particular bra comes up big/small etc., as well as engaging in friendly chit-chat if you leave a comment or ask a question.

I’ll admit to looking even flatter than usual in some of my new bras, but I don’t suppose anyone else would notice, and the upside is that I’m comfortable and every bit of material fits flush to my skin, so no more craters or ridges. They also minimise what I have dubbed Concertina Armpit Scrottage (a curse for women large or small over a certain age), again because the fit is good. And for special occasions I have my Enhance Bra (not an underwire in sight!)

My friend Anne recently made me feel better about being both thin and flat chested. Her comments were so touching and, moreover, such an eye opener for me (she’s the guru of positive perspectives), that I’m going to quote them in full:

“Every single bit of medical evidence shows that slimness (provided there is no eating disorder) is good for you long term.  You are not going to have any pressure on your joints, issues over organ failure, and perhaps most importantly, you will be able to carry yourself like a much younger woman.  Things that you take for granted (like being able to get up off the floor quickly, run suddenly, jump) increasing amounts of the population can’t do any more.  How lovely that you will be able to do this forever – celebrate it!”

So I’m off to take my skinny, flat-chested self and my second daughter to the park, where my narrow arse fits down the slide and I can still ace the monkey bars.

Mini bras! Various degrees of padding but all oh so comfy
Mini bras! Various degrees of padding but all oh so comfy