I was just listening to Laurence Lewellyn-Bowen on Radio 4 asking a bunch of third division football players about their tattoos. I got a tattoo not long after I left home, one of several drastic/permanent alterations I made to my appearance in that first 12 months. I remember taking care, when I went home, that my mother never saw it. She’d have gone round the bend, wouldn’t she?
She’d always had, I thought, very strong views about how I looked. She had various ways of enforcing her ideas: school uniform she felt she had complete say over, to the point where she once took me back into town the day after she’d bought my new school skirt, because (as she outlined to the sales assistant) the 3/4 length of the skirt was unflattering, and I’d be better with a knee length. (I was 15 by the way.) Outside clothes she apparently felt less able to dictate and would instead guide me to the right choices with a combination of telling me the clothes I liked either made me look fat or made my boobs look really prominent, or if she was getting fed up with shopping, she would just start suggesting me things and then get more and more angry at me turning them down until I’d be forced to either buy something or be subjected to one of her rage binges. It was an original way to build up a wardrobe.
She also had me keep my hair very long – I’ve said before, I’m basically actual Rapunzel except that my Prince was a spotty teenager with a shared love of science fiction books – and heavily implied that it was the only thing that made me look beautiful, so I kept it, despite hating the work that came with it. I’m digressing, but hair is such a mother/daughter abuse thing, it comes up with loads of women. The brushing was pretty bad – who attacks a head of tangly hair from the top down, pushing all the tangles together into a matted lump that then has to be pulled at for like half an hour? Who does that? And the hair washing was as bad. She wouldn’t let me wash my hair myself, and the way it had to be done was for my hair to be rinsed over the bath. She’d do the front first, with me looking up, and then I would have to turn over and face downwards while she waterboarded me, sorry I mean she rinsed the soap off the back of my hair. I thought about it the other day, as one of my kids is as fond of soapy water on her face as I am, and has therefore been an early adopter of the No Poo movement, but the other night she asked to have her hair washed.
“Yes. It’s like being in a spa.” (We just got Netflix. They’ve been mainlining Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse.)
So I did it, and she’s… a bit (2 years!) older than the last time we tried washing her hair so I said to her, do you want to just try putting your head back? And she was better this time at controlling her reaction to the water (as a littler she would put her head down as soon as the water came too far forward, and then it would run into her eyes) and I was able to rinse the soap off without getting any soap or water anywhere near her face.
Then, I lifted her hair off her neck, rinsed the soap off her shoulders, and let the water run through her hair until I could see that the water was running clear from under her hair. And I remembered the weekly waterboarding, and how it just felt representative of everything in my life at that time: difficult. Bleak. All good things have to be paid for.
Anyway. I’m talking about appearance, and my mother’s control over it, overt and subtle. So you know, this is the woman who was happy to subtly undermine me about the hair thing to the point where it was almost a double bind (“you’ll be ugly without your long hair, but you have to let me hurt you in order to keep it”), rage at me for not liking the same clothes as me and out and out choose every thread of my school uniform.
And then there was all the makeup and personal grooming stuff. Fuck sake. I forgot about that. Makeup ruins the young complexion, therefore I wasn’t allowed any. And if you shave your legs, the hair will grow back thicker, so you should leave it as long as possible. Only I was 15, and although my ancestry is all peely wally northern British Isles, my dad used to regularly get mistaken for southern European and I’ve inherited his colouring. I had extremely obvious dark black hair all over my legs. In my second last year at school I teamed the hairy legs with the knee length school skirt my mum had gone all the way back into town to get me, and you can imagine how that went down with my school colleagues.
I guess I will always wonder how much of it was malice and how much just her crazy notions about stuff. She would have opinions about the weirdest stuff – when I first got a watch, it had to be a wind-up one, because she’d had a battery one once that broke. She hated trying to get clothes dry in our rainy town but she wouldn’t have a tumble dryer because there was no space, and she wouldn’t have a combination washing machine/tumble dryer because my aunty had had one once and the maximum spin on it was too low. We could look, I thought, at the label, and pick one with the same maximum spin as our old machine. I don’t know why that wouldn’t have worked but it wouldn’t, and the old machine stayed where it was. Stuff like that seemed to be her shooting herself in the foot, so it made it easier to believe that she wasn’t just doing it to be evil, but I don’t think there are any simple answers to why she did any of it.
Anyway, that was a whole load of stuff that went down when I was a kid and it was all very tiring and distressing. So I thought, I’d better keep this tattoo quiet. If she could spend a day and a night prevaricating over what length of skirt I should have been wearing to school, how was she going to react when she found out I had actually had something drawn on me on permanent ink? And without her knowledge and consent? As if my body belonged to me and me alone?
She wasn’t bothered. She saw it once when we went to a swimming pool, and she was like, oh. And that was it. She carried on getting ready, and we went for a swim. And I always kind of wondered why she suddenly didn’t care and I think I know the answer: she never really cared, not that much. So why did she control me so tightly?
Just because she could. I mean probably she cared a little bit more when I was in school, when my appearance reflected on her a bit more. But even then. It was more like, she wanted me to look a certain way, and why shouldn’t she have that if she wanted it? And then she just deployed all her horrible tactics for getting me to do what she wanted. I was making the mistake of thinking that because it cost me a great deal to have no control over my appearance, having that control must have meant a great deal to her in turn. But no – she wanted it, she took it, and I don’t think she even has a model in her head for what that might have meant to me. I might have been deeply unhappy about some of the things that she made me wear/do, but I knew that showing that unhappiness would soon precipitate a rage binge, so I kept quiet, and plastered a rictus grin on my face. And that was enough. It’s well behaved, it’s showing no obvious signs of unhappiness, and it’s wearing the clothes you specially chose. If you’re NPD, there is no downside in this scenario.