Sunday, 30 January 2011

Skin Deep

I am obsessed with the way I look.

That doesn’t mean I spend hours gazing into the mirror thinking how fabulous I am, all evidence to the contrary. However – if I totalled up the amount of time I spent thinking about my hair, my face, my piercings, my tattoos, my weight, my clothes, my make-up, and donated that time to charity… well, I’m sure no Ethiopian children would ever feel ugly again.

I could probably write seven blogs on this topic, one for each of the above categories, but I suspect that an entire column dedicated to my face-related woes or how whenever I wear make-up it seems to end up dripping down my cheeks not three minutes later would probably start to bore people, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t know that you’re all dangling on my every word (ha ha). Hence, I need to try to condense all this image-angst into one chocolate covered bite-sized (oh! The calories!) chunk.

When I was a kid, I went through a phase of being a tom boy. This was during the phase of my live when I loved animals – all animals, any animals, even woodlice and worms and those weird looking cats with no hair – better than I loved my own family. I considered worrying about hair, rather than, say, the plight of starving Spanish donkeys or badly beaten racehorses, to be deeply infra dig and so tried to see how long I could go for without washing my hideous boy-ish mop, before my mother would forcibly hold me under the shower and scrub my head with a bar of soap.

I dressed entirely in jumble sale puffa jackets and hand-me-down jodhpurs that were about 6 sizes too big for me. The only item of clothing I had any passion for was the silk on my riding hat, which was red, black and shiny.

I looked horrific – I don’t know how my poor mother dealt with dragging me into public, especially as this greasy-haired, horse-poo-covered look was nicely topped off with lots of sanctimonious comments about vegetarianism and battery farming… seriously, I would have drowned myself in the lake had I had to bring me up, so can we all give my mum a round of applause – but I was happy. I’m sure there’s a homily in there somewhere, but I am choosing not to see it.

When did the obsession with how I looked begin? It started when I discovered the world of being a Goth. And rack my brains as I might, I can’t think what made me decide that smearing my face with white powder, dying my hair black, drawing spider webs coming out of my eyes, tying bandanas around the tops of my DM boots and wearing black, fringey skirts, a hat, an overcoat and a permanent scowl was a good idea. Other than logic and good sense, of course. Winky face.

Actually, thinking about it for another minute or so, I realise that it was, of course, the teenager’s best friend that made me decide the gothic life was for me… the pressure of wanting to fit in. Not that being a Goth was ever painful for me ­- once you got away from the exquisite pain of merely drawing breath that every Goth girl feels, of course. I never dressed that way against my will… but I’m sure it was a case of monkey see, monkey do. To be sure, I took the whole white face/black everything else further than the friends I had been trying to impress ever did, but then I’ve never really understood the meaning of the word moderation.

This was my first foray into the world of caring about what I looked like, and my god, did I embrace it with both arms. Years of fraught arguments with my parents over hair dye, make-up, piercings and tattoos were to follow. I imagine that my parents, looking at me dressed from head to toe in vast swathes of tent-like black, replete with the requisite fringes and mirrors, the black relieved only by the patchy white powder plastered on my face, longed to be able to argue with me about skirts that looked liked belts and a face daubed in too much blusher. Instead, I remember my father once looking me and saying, with a sigh that rattled the armchairs, ‘You’re such a pretty girl, Johanna. Why do you contrive to make yourself look so ugly?’

A whole new world accompanied this image change – a world full of gigs in smoky rooms, dancing with my arms tracing ethereal shapes in the sky, as if I was in a trance – a world punctuated by hours spent in murky second hand record shops, flicking through the Mission and Siouxsie sections for that elusive picture disc – a world of poetry and self harm and pints of snakebite and black. What came first, the music or the image? As Nick Hornby once nearly said, did I listen to gothic music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to gothic music?

I remained a Goth – secretly piercing my tongue the day before I started at uni, and dreaming about marrying Andrew Eldritch – until mid-way through my first year, when I suddenly became a brightly coloured, bubble-gum rave kid, dressing in children’s t-shirts, animal ears and little skirts, never dreaming of going out of the house without that most essential of items for a 20-year-old… a water pistol. To be sure, I still had the odd day where I would wear my long red velvet coat and my black PVC trousers with a pair of handcuffs attached to the belt loops, and stalk about pretending I was Dracula (and why not? I kinda miss those days, now I think about it), but mostly, I was reborn as a raver, and I put my Sisters of Mercy records away in favour of Josh Wink.

(Well, actually, I must make it clear that I’ve never owned more than a Josh Wink cassette single in my life, and was still mostly listening to Morrissey, the Cure and the Tindersticks on my own time, but when I went out, I was dancing to electronic music and finding that I sorta kinda liked it.)

What was the reason for this fashion about-face? There were three main trigger points, I think – events that all occurred within the same few months, which, now I think back on it, I wonder if they weren’t the best months of my life. The first two – true love, and the discovery of ecstasy – I won’t dwell on here. It was the hair dye that really did it.

I had been dying my hair black (like my soul) since I was 16, and I imagined I would keep it that way forever. After all, Morrissey had pretty much instructed me to do so (I wear black on the outside, cos black is how I feel on the inside - thanks for the fashion tips, Moz!) and I would never do anything without his say so. I only ever intended to dye some so-blonde-they-look-white streaks into my black barnet, something that Goths will dally with occasionally when they want to stand out from the murky crowd.

So my friend Amy bleached two streaks into my black hair, and I was entranced. To this day, some 14 years later, one of my clearest memories is of me sitting in the canteen at uni picking over, most likely, a cold-as-stone and hard-as-bullets jacket potato, the high point of the canteen’s cuisine, holding one of my new icy blonde streaks out in front of me and gazing at it in wonder. It was like the first hair that ever there was – it was SO stripped of colour, and it was soft, and babyish… I was in love.

Imagine, I thought to myself, how much better my look, my love affairs, my whole LIFE would be if all of my hair looked like this? I pushed the rest of my inedible potato aside, commandeered Amy, and went back to her room to finish what we had started.

The only slight issue was that we didn’t really have enough bleach powder. Or solution. And we didn’t suss either of those facts out until we were about a third of the way through the process. Fortunately, we lived in student halls for arty types, and every third person bleached their hair. Thus followed a night of hair raising hilarity, where we would run out of one ingredient or another every 15 minutes (approx.) and Amy would have to go and knock on more doors, begging more bleaching ingredients. Somehow, we sort of got the lot done (and I can’t stress the ‘sort of’ enough there), but of course some of the bleach, by that point, had been on my hair for about three hours (and Jesus, did that sting) and some for about three minutes, so the effect was, well, avante garde to say the very least. A bloody mess, to be more accurate. Some of it was white, some was orange, and some still a muddy black. I looked like a tiger with a hangover, who had been rolling in some mud. But I loved it!

I stayed blonde for around 14 years after that. Sometimes I had red streaks (which the rest of the world always seemed to think were pink, but I bought the dye, I knew they were red!), sometimes I had dreadlock extensions, sometimes I had braids – but always, I was blonde. You’ll be relieved to learn that I learnt to dye my hair properly at some point during that time and was no longer sporting the drunken muddy tiger look.

Along with the blonde hair came a lust for clothes and shoes which, while I don’t mean to boast, I have rarely seen equalled. Yeah, I loved clothes when I was a Goth, but the items my code allowed me to buy were pretty limited. Suddenly, the shops – all of them – were my oyster, and I gaily threw student loan after student loan away on t-shirts from Etam (irony, you see?), crazy coloured trousers, coats that looked like muppets, glitter and accessories. Oh, the accessories. Tiaras, earrings, chokers, toe rings, anklets, and of course, the all-important water pistols.

It was around this time that I started collecting the best accessories of all – tattoos. I had been getting pierced for some time now… I had my belly button done at Glastonbury, aged 17… my tongue, as mentioned earlier, the day before I started uni… a lip piercing came next, and then I start to lose count of which piercing happened in which order. Strange places in my ears I hadn’t previously heard of, even a nipple… but fun as piercings are, they’re not a patch on the thrill of fresh new ink.

My first tattoo was the standard mistake. I went to a terrible shop, and I got a terrible design. I’m not sure I can even bring myself to tell you, such a clichĂ© that it was, but my lust for doing slightly stupid things in the name of fashion is equal only to my lust for spilling my guts on the internet, so don’t fret, dear reader, I’ll let you in on the secret. It was the rose from the front of the first Manic Street Preachers album, the rose that Richie had on his arm. Except that Richie’s was in glorious colour and mine, natch, was black – coloured tattoos, I felt, were vile. Oh, and on the album cover, the rose had a banner across it saying ‘Generation Terrorists.’ Mine said ‘dead flower.’ Which I thought was impossibly romantic, but which now makes me cringe. It was too low down, too dark, a total mess – but like my tiger coloured hair, I loved it none the less. It lasted about ten years, I think, before I got it covered up with a giant Hello Kitty with wings. I’m not sure if the move from the Manic Street Preachers to a cartoon cat made entirely to trick children and foolish women out of all of their money is a step up or a step down in life. I shall leave you to ponder.

I collected tattoos like stickers when I was at uni. This was partially because there was a tattoo shop in between my house and the bus stop, and I had a major crush on the tattoo artist who did most of my first pieces. This guy was much better than the hack who did my rose. I think this guy (his name was Steve) did another three or four for me, as well as a handful of piercings. I imagined that we were friends and that he gave me a discount, but I’m not sure that was ever really true.

I won’t tell you about all my tattoos or we’ll be here way too long and you’ll all wander off to watch TV. I’ll just take a moment to mention that my favourites are the butterfly on my foot that I got as a freebie when I was working in a tattoo shop in Tottenham, another (very different!) butterfly I got at a convention in Brighton, and the Madonna faces on the inside of my left arm. I have one tattoo which has A Meaning – duh, duh, duh! – which is the fairly crappy dragon on my stomach. I got that to reclaim my body after a break-up, at a point where I was reading lots of feminist literature and used phrases like ‘reclaim my body’ on a regular basis. I have plans for many more – the next will be my favourite quote of all time, a line from Leonard Conman’s masterpiece Anthem, I just haven’t worked out where to put it yet – but alas, I doubt my funds will ever stretch to encompass my dreams.

So, I have squandered time, money and effort on Things To Make Me Look Good to a ridiculous degree over the past couple of decades. Shoes, dresses, shoes, trousers, shoes, t-shirts, shoes, make-up… I am a slave to them all. Did I mention the shoes? Learning to walk in high heels, aged about 30, when I saw some heels with skulls and crossbones on and knew I couldn’t live without them, has been a revelation for both myself and my osteopath, who can probably retire on the extra cash I’m giving him due to the damage my shoes do my back. It’s actually dangerous for me to go into Irregular Choice, on Carnaby Street, a treasure trove of fairy tale shoes, ALL OF WHICH I want. I might plan to buy one sale pair, but will be lucky to leave without three full price sets. And then will probably go back to get the other two pairs I had ruled out within the next week. Those shoes are like cocaine to me.

My most recent fashion fun excursion is my ever changing hair. For years now, I have dreamt of having hair like Carrie Bradshaw’s, circa the end of series 2, long, curly, blonde… but no matter how long I tried to grow it for, it never looked like that, so, on a whim, about 8 months ago, I cut it all off and got some red and black extensions in a bit of fringey bit at the side. And I have discovered the joy that is short hair and had three more new styles since. Cos, well, you need to get short hair cut pretty often anyway, right? So if you’re gonna shell out the cash, you might as well get something new. And plus, with short hair, if it looks horrible, who cares? Wear a hat for three weeks, and when you take it off, it’s all ok again!

Short hair also gave me the confidence to return to my roots, do something I’ve been talking about for years – channel Amy Whininghouse and go Back to Black. I now have a black Mohawk, and not only do I love it, but I know my 15-year-old self would be proud. Will I start listening to the Fields of the Nephilim again soon and writing swoony letters to Wayne Hussey? Only time will tell.


  1. I would like to see photos of MopeyJo. Or HungoverTigerJo. Thankyouplease.

  2. Loved this post Jo! Loved it.

  3. Thanks Joe! JFS... I'll try to look some out!

  4. Brilliant piece of blogging :))))) Really had me giggling in places out loud.

    Fashion victim or icon .... you are always uber cool <3

    luvz to you xxxxx

  5. That was all very entertaining. And really, who could disapprove of squandering time, money and effort in order to look good?