My bare-faced week in the Middle East

I recently went on a trip to Israel with Christian Aid. After a long day of travelling from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv and then jumping in a taxi – which incidentally broke down on the dual carriageway on our way to East Jerusalem – we finally arrived at our hotel. It was late in the evening when I got into my hotel room and I decided I would unpack for the week.

Swimming around my head were thoughts of the adventure that we were going to have; the surreal nature of the fact that I was in the Holy Land. I was also bracing myself for what promised to be an extremely emotive week, walking where Jesus walked but also witnessing the suffering experienced by those affected by the ongoing conflict in the region.

And then suddenly I had a thought; a thought which at that moment seemed far more upsetting than anything else I was preparing to see – more tangible than the scenes of human suffering I was sure to witness in the coming days: ‘I forgot to pack my foundation.’


Surely I could not have been so stupid. Surely I could not have forgotten my most important item. But, sure enough, I unzipped my make-up bag – my only travel essential – and opened it up to find an empty hole where my Mac Studio Fix Fluid should have been. My mind flashed back to my dresser in my room in Greenwich, south-east London, where a few hours before I had been doing my make-up, ready for the journey ahead. I had forgotten to pack it.

I’m not sure how I can get across to you how much of a panic I was spiralled into upon realising this catastrophe. Some pretty crazy thoughts rushed through my head. [I won’t go into detail here about the difficulties of finding good foundation for black skin in London, let alone the Middle East – that is for another blog!] I momentarily wondered how much it would cost for me to fly back home first thing in the morning, pick up my foundation, and fly back to meet the party I was travelling with in the evening. I quickly started up my laptop, connected to the Wi-Fi and Googled whether there was a Mac store in Jerusalem – or anywhere in Israel. There was one – only two miles away from where we were staying. I started plotting how on earth I could leave the group I was with, learn the Arabic or Hebrew for ‘Taxi driver, get me to the Mac store!’

For someone who daren’t leave the house without her face on, this oversight was a tragedy of epic proportions. How could I show my bare face? Maybe I could get away with not washing off the make-up I was already wearing and seeing if it would stay on for a week?

Foundation has been my best friend for many, many years. For me, it’s a way to mask some insecurities and flaws.

I love make-up. It’s perhaps a bit of a comfort blanket – something which I feel I can’t live without. But after getting over my ridiculous state of panic and getting a bit of perspective from that still small voice and the voice of reason aka my little sister; I soon forgot all about the foundation. I decided I would take up the challenge of a week without it.

Although I did still have eyeliner, mascara and a shimmer brick, so it really wasn’t all that bad…

I was clearly the only person who noticed I didn’t have my foundation. There were no screams of horror upon seeing my foundation-less face when I met the rest of the group for breakfast in the morning.

It seems that I’m not the only one who clings on to cosmetics. Today’s Stylist magazine included a feature on the psychology of make-up, the snap judgments we make based on what people look like and the vast number of us who feel that it’s only with make-up on that we can be confident in the workplace.

Apparently women spend 10 working days a year getting ready for work, while 70 per cent of us feel ill-equipped without our faces on.

A survey cited in Stylist found that “a tide-mark of foundation indicates lack of attention to detail, heavily pencilled brows suggest cockiness and no mascara points to a potential emotional wreck”, Stylist reports. We are judged on how pristinely we apply our make-up.

Ever since I started writing this book, I’ve planned to go into work one day without make-up on. But I haven’t quite worked up the courage. How ridiculous is that?

Maybe seeing Stylist’s Samantha Flowers writing about her bare-faced week will give me the push to finally do it.

But not tomorrow though… I have a meeting.


Dying to be beautiful?


Writing about body image and self-esteem has taken me into some dark places within my own mind and given me insight into the dark places that other women’s minds take them to. But none so dark and disturbing than my realisation over the past few days that there are little girls who are literally dying to be beautiful.

I’ve read about Fiona Geraghty, a lively, charming and talented 14-year-old girl from Somerset, who killed herself because she thought she was overweight; hanged herself because she felt she did not look like girls in fashion magazines.

I’ve learned of Rosie Whitaker, 15, who jumped in front of a train in Kent after her feelings of being unattractive and overweight led her to suicide and self-harm websites.

And then there’s Ashlynn Conner, an honour roll student from Illinois, who was just 10 years old when she killed herself after her classmates called her ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’.

The list goes on.

A study of more than 14,000 high school students in the US in 2009 found that overweight teenagers and those who believe they are overweight are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who are not, or those who think they are not.

Monica Swahn, who led the study, said: ‘Youth feel very pressured to fit in and to fit certain limited ideals of beauty.’

How did the world become a place in which little girls can’t bear to live because they don’t feel they look right? How did the world become a place where little girls are so bombarded with messages that they are not as beautiful as fashion models that they just can’t take another moment of being alive? How did we arrive at a world where a 10-year-old will hang herself with her scarf because her classmates taunt her with ‘fat insults’? How did the world become a place where the pressure to be beautiful robs little girls of any sense of hope?

When Michael Rose, the West Somerset coroner who presided over the inquest into Fiona Geraghty’s death, gave his verdict, he gave a warning to the fashion industry.

‘The one class of person not here who I hold directly responsible for what happened is the fashion industry,’ he said. ‘The problems of eating disorders amongst young people, particularly girls, did not exist before the 1970s. From that period onwards the fashion industry and the magazines promoted thin models and the thin figure.

‘I do ask, particularly the magazines in the fashion industry, to stop publishing photographs of wafer thin girls. I do implore it, because at the end of the day for their benefit, families like this must suffer. It is, I am afraid, an increasing problem and until they control themselves it will continue.’

If I ever have daughters, I want them to know that they are beautiful. I don’t want them to even give it a second thought. I don’t want them to face the anguish and pain that so many women of my generation face all because of a sense of feeling un-beautiful.

But even as I say this and I write about it, I realise the extent of the battle that needs to be won. It’s a battle not just for our minds and our own feelings about ourselves, but it’s a battle against a culture which insists on making us feel un-beautiful.

Because people who don’t feel beautiful buy stuff, read stuff, watch stuff, which promises to make them beautiful.

Even as I researched the stories online of the tragic girls mentioned above, adverts popped up on my screen for skinny pills, anti-ageing products and one which promised to reveal how celebs get flat tummies.

As I battle with my own body image issues, I hear stories of young girls who despise their bodies; who are desperate to look like glamour models or television stars. Or feel that they should at least want to look that way. And my heart aches for them.

‘Ugly Girl’, who recently posted on the Everyday Sexism website, is a teenager who said she ‘chose to wear modest clothes for religious reasons’.

Sharing her pain, she wrote: ‘I’ve had people call me hideous, mock me for expressing feelings towards the opposite sex, and outright laugh in my face for believing I could somehow be beautiful and value myself on the inside… Just because I am a woman, my image is treated as the only thing that should define me and that should matter. This is the concept of sexism that haunts me in everyday life and I despise it.’

I think of the beautiful girls in the youth group at my church or my young girl cousins and I am certain that they are going through the same battles as we have gone through and we continue to go through.

And I think that at some point this has got to stop.

It has to stop.

But it will take some radical changes to ensure that our daughters and their daughters don’t have to go through this.

The radical step starts with believing that we are beautiful and modelling that belief in our own beauty. It will mean no longer accepting it as the norm that we think we are un-beautiful. It means showing them that we are happy with ourselves, thanks very much. And it also means challenging those words and images that might make them feel inadequate, unworthy and unloved.

Amanda King is a blogger who is modelling that radical belief about her own beauty as an example to her daughters.

The mum of two from Pittsburgh writes this on her blog:

‘I am slow and I am tired.  I am round and sagging. I am harried.  I am sexless.  I am getting older. I am beautiful.  How can this be?  How can any of this be true?

‘I don’t want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. They will get older and their breasts will lose their shape and they will hate their bodies, because that’s what women do. That’s what mommy did. I want them to become women who remember me modelling impossible beauty. Modelling beauty in the face of a mean world, a scary world, a world where we don’t know what to make of ourselves.

‘”Look at me, girls!”  I say to them.  “Look at how beautiful I am. I feel really beautiful, today.”’

So, some questions for you:

How do we raise daughters or encourage younger women to feel beautiful?

How did your mother’s view of herself influence how you feel about your own body?

Is it possible to raise daughters with high self-esteem while you yourself have low self-esteem?

In praise of Girls Aloud

And who would have thought that I’d be so content in my own skin?Image

I love Girls Aloud and I’m not ashamed to say it. A couple of years ago, my sister and I trekked all the way up to Manchester to see the famous five in concert. Along with thousands of other girls and women, we sang at the top of our lungs and wiggled our tooshes to The Promise. As one does.

Nicola, Cheryl, Kimberley, Sarah and Nadine have the unique ability to be superstars, but also be just like us; just like all our other girlfriends.

And a display of female solidarity, the fabulous five have just released the positive body image song Beautiful Because You Love Me.

Look at these girls.

They are absolute stunners.

But the song reveals that even they go through body image anxieties – just like the rest of us.

Flame-haired Nicole revealed earlier this year how being dubbed ‘The Ugly One’ by former Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles drove her to depression and drink.

Kimberley Walsh, called ‘The Curvy One’, revealed last year how she was called ‘duck bum’ at school and how she went on extreme diets in the early days of Girls Aloud.

Nadine Coyle was nicknamed ‘Lollipop Head’ by the tabloids a few years ago when she became extremely skinny.

The girls are judged because of what they look like. And just like for many of us, that causes anxiety and can lead to extreme eating habits or low self-esteem.

But their new song’s positive message says that we are beautiful not because the world says we are – because sometimes the world says we’re not – but because someone who loves us unconditionally thinks that we are.

I’ll leave you with the lyrics. You can also watch the lyric video here:

Standing over the basin
I’ve been washing my face in
Jet black mascara racing
Down my cheeks till I taste it
Staring at my reflection
Every slight imperfection
Staring back at me
Naked as a girl can be

And who would have thought that I’d be so content in my own skin

Right now the whole world could call me ugly
So what, to you I’m not
You don’t love me cause I’m beautiful
Oh no
I’m beautiful cause you love me
I can’t tell you the deepest and darkest of my secrets
Knowing that you will keep it
And it won’t change our feeling
Every mark on my body
You know every inch of me
All the parts that I used to hate to glorified
There’s a new meaning to freedom when I’m with you

Right now the whole world could call me ugly
So what, to you I’m not
You don’t love me cause I’m beautiful
Oh no
I’m beautiful cause you love me

Beautiful cause you love me

There’s a new meaning to freedom when I’m with you

Right now the whole world could call me ugly
So what, to you I’m not
You don’t love me cause I’m beautiful
Oh no
I’m beautiful cause you love me

Beautiful cause you love me