England is hot at the moment… by our standards, at least… and any inkling of summer in our temperate land is always greeted by the hopeful baring of pale flesh. It also seems to be greeted with traffic jams and, twiddling my thumbs in the latest, I turned to people watching. There was plenty to see.
Men, it must be said, are at a distinct sartorial disadvantage in summer. While trousers may get shorter and shirts brighter, there is little change in the basic shape of their apparel. Not so the female of the species. Hemlines sweep the floor or go up to dangerous heights. Unexpected, and occasionally inappropriate areas of anatomy are bared and what is left covered sports every shade of the rainbow in every conceivable combination, from the casually elegant to the downright startling.
As I melted in traffic, I observed the various ladies walking and thus moving far faster than me. There was the teenage girl, dressed with meticulous care and obviously feeling very grown up. She had spent a good deal of time on her hair, dress and make-up and must have known, on some level at least, how pretty she looked.
I watched her watching, covertly glancing to see which, if any, of the male motorists were watching her, seeking in their eyes some validation of her attractiveness. I recognised that… remembered that uncertainty and need for approval in other eyes than my own.
There were many who walked with heavy feet and slumped shoulders. They seemed to be dressed in whatever had come to hand, with no care or thought for their appearance. Not because they do not care, but because they do not value themselves and as society has given them no reason to think they have any value, self-esteem is a victim of its own vicious circle.
There was the young woman whose outfit would have seemed more at home at a beach party than the town centre. A big girl, wearing the shortest of shorts over thighs that made mine look like matchsticks. A bikini-type top dripped cowboy fringes across the generous expanse of bared curves. She should have looked ridiculous… and she looked magnificent, walking with an unconscious grace and confidence that required no approval from anyone.
Next was the precision-dressed, beautifully coiffed lady who looked, in spite of the heat, as if she had walked straight out of a fashion magazine. She too walked with confidence, yet it seemed to me that her confidence was conscious and assumed… an assertion that this vision of poised elegance really was her. Honest. Yet, behind the painted mask, I had the impression that she was the most fragile of them all, choosing her attire as a disguise and shield behind which she could hide.
And then there was me, heading for the supermarket still soggy from cleaning and recommissioning my son’s hot-tub, with hair like an overused Brillo pad, devoid of make-up and wearing mismatched and, by now, distinctly grubby clothes. I wondered what the observed would make of the observer and decided I really didn’t care.
When I finally arrived at the supermarket to buy deck shoes for my son, I followed another woman. No taller than me, she was eighty if she was a day. A mass of soft grey curls clustered round her shoulders and she walked with a comfortable assurance. She was wearing a gypsy dress, floor length, with elasticated waist and neckline… the kind of thing we wore in the early seventies and fairly inappropriate for a great-granny, at least within society’s hidebound perceptions. She didn’t care… she shone… and looked amazing. Wholly at ease, comfortable, confident and beautiful. I smiled and met her eyes, she twinkled back at me, sharing a moment of wordless understanding that left me feeling privileged to have encountered her.
The girl in rainbow harem pants and dreadlocks was wearing her uniform, just as much a badge of identity as the business suit or the mini skirt and designer heels. The ones who has squeezed themselves into uncomfortable fashions looked far less attractive than those who were comfortable in their skins. I thought about it as I drove home.
Unless we are as confident as the girl in shorts or as comfortable as the little old lady, the image we project will have little to do with who we are, and much to do with how we hope others will see us. Or how we would like to see ourselves. The trouble is that although we may be able to fool our surface minds when we look in the mirror on the wall, while ever we seek validation in the eyes of others, we won’t fool anyone for very long, least of all ourselves.
When I arrived back at his home, my son and I talked over a cuppa about how he has managed to do so many amazing things since he was left with so many physical challenges. “It’s a state of mind,” he said. “You have to accept yourself as you are. Believe you are enough as you are… and still believe there are no boundaries. Believe in yourself. ” I told him about the people I had been watching. It is the same principle in a different guise. Their beauty did not come from painted masks or fashionable attire. It came from who they are. They are enough.