At the age of five, I was fully aware of who the prettiest girls in my class were. I was aware because all of us wanted to be their friends. We wanted to go their parties and for them to come to ours. We were far more likely to share our toys with them than anyone else. We wanted to sit beside them because they were popular. They were more likely to be cast as the princess or the Virgin Mary in our (Catholic) school nativity play.
Life was simply easier for them, and it still is. Even when adolescence might have altered their heart-shaped faces or ravaged their flawless skin, they still have the unshakeable confidence that was instilled in their early years. We were used to their popularity and their place as winners in life’s lottery, and so were they. Also, unlike their fictional stereotypes, they were usually not “mean” girls. They were kind and generous and sweet-natured, because they had no reason not to be.
I suppose I was an averagely cute kid, but a brain haemorrhage at age six caused lifelong physical disability to my right arm and leg, putting me at the back of the bus in terms of that kind of privilege and so I acted out, becoming a sullen and depressed teenager. Whatever natural confidence I had gradually disappeared, as my right hand refused to grasp my pen and my right foot would turn outwards in painful spasms. Years of physiotherapy took me out of school every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Eventually, my left hand took the pen from my right, and, to this day, I have to wear grotesque shoes. There was no cure, and so I became an observer of life as lived by the beautiful people. Economically, also, I did not belong. I attended an expensive school that my mother could barely afford. I never had enough money to keep up with the social activities of my classmates.
I carried these inadequacies within me into my adult life. Why was I always the last to be served at the shop counter? Will anyone come to my assistance at a roadside breakdown? As I got older, was I going to disappear? Was I actually jealous of the women who had disgusting men whistling at them in the street, because it was a step up from the disgusting men who would hurl insults from their passing vans: “Hurry up, love!” “Oi, peg-leg!”
My childhood was the best training you can have for writing dark stories, with characters who may be beautiful but monstrous, kind but physically damaged and emotionally smart but intellectually challenged
My childhood was the best training you can have for writing dark stories, with characters who may be beautiful but monstrous, kind but physically damaged and emotionally smart but intellectually challenged. When I put pen to paper and began to write, class and beauty – or the lack of them – became central themes in my sinister tales. For my most recent book, I began to wonder about the stunningly beautiful girls we see on magazine covers. The pressure they must feel to maintain their body shape, the gruelling exercise, the hours spent in salons. It must be nice, for a day, maybe, but it must also be exhausting, competitive and not a lot of fun.
I was inspired to write a character whose entire self-worth is tied to her appearance. From birth, she believes (mistakenly) that her father only values her for her beauty. What would happen, I wondered, if that beauty was taken away suddenly by circumstance in later years? How would she cope with disfigurement and, as the scarring only affects one side of her face, would her personality also become fractured? I took what I knew from experience to be true. Confidence is something that does not disappear in an instant. It erodes slowly, depending upon how we are treated.
It is writing that has restored my long-lost confidence. Oh, and facial injectables. The Botox was for me, not my husband or my friends. Ironically, I was treated with Botox for its original medical purposes 35 years ago, to stop muscles in my leg and arm going into spasm. Recently, I have developed antibodies to Botox and have moved on to dermal fillers, to stop age-related face-sag. It makes me feel better about myself, and I have zero guilt about this. Those of us who’ve had the treatment recognise it in each other, but nobody speaks of it. I want to shout about it. I saved up and did something for me. Others buy shoes and handbags and designer clothes. I pay my mortgage and gratefully turn my face to the needle.
Writing makes me feel better about the world. I can talk to readers through my books and I value the connections I have made as a result. As my reputation grows, and my books sell in respectable numbers, my opinion is sought on all kinds of matters. Opportunities have come my way that would have been unthinkable when I was the office drudge on a TV show for 10 years. I get invited to international festivals. Politicians listen to me. Celebrities read me.
I feign confidence very well. Faking it until you make it really works. I have learned not to talk about how nervous I am. I assume the role of a successful writer. It turns out that I’m a good public speaker (after hiring actors to read at my first book launch because I was so terrified of reading aloud from my own work). I have, so far, managed all editorial meetings without tears. I have been asked to judge others’ work on several occasions. Most importantly, I have learned to accept every new opportunity that comes my way. I used to say no to everything outside my comfort zone, and everything was outside my comfort zone. Now, I just say yes.
Outwardly, I’m living the dream. But I’m still the kid with the limp who ate lunch on her own in her second-hand uniform. The difference is that I really like her now. Without her solitary watchfulness, I would have nothing to write about.
Skin Deep by Liz Nugent is published by Penguin 15 November £7.99