Last weekend, I interviewed Katie Piper at Cheltenham Literature Festival. She was there to talk about her latest book, which is about finding confidence. And really, I suppose, when you’ve been beaten, raped and had acid poured in your face, and nine years later you’re a mother, married, an international bestselling author, campaigner and about to embark on a theatre tour, there probably aren’t many other people who can speak as knowingly about the strange phantom of confidence we spend our life chasing.
During our conversation, Piper rated her confidence in different areas of her life out of 10. She said in her professional life it’s a “10”, but in a club it would be “nearer a five”. In the spirit of Piper, I’ve decided to do my own confidence audit, as I’ve just turned 32. After all, everyone kept telling me how much better and easier things would be in my thirties; that it would no longer be the chaos and calamity of my twenties, but an empowered, confident – Rachel Green at Ralph Lauren years – transformation, glossy hair, monochrome wardrobe et al. Apparently, I was going spend evenings on creative projects, like pottery or fiction writing. I’d drink and eat responsibly. I might invest in a North Face puffer jacket. I’d use cleanser.
None of these things have happened.
And my confidence? Well, it’s sometimes there (I found myself running the train-ticket queue at Gatwick airport recently with an efficiency that I didn’t know I had), but in other ways it seems to be evaporating.
Spouting my opinions was never a problem when I was younger. I’d tell everyone exactly what I thought. I was always ready to go to war. But my legs feel a bit shakier than they used to. And that’s partly because the stakes are higher. Even simple opinions like “Hillary Clinton is better than Donald Trump” or “It is not Hillary Clinton’s fault that Harvey Weinstein is a sex offender” can result in being leapt on by middle-aged trolls with a Bernie avatar and a Momentum banner. No, they don’t keep me up at night, but the relentless “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH GENDER” rants plant the slightest seeds of doubt that never used to be there.
Achieving body confidence remains as achievable as a Brexit deal. Nora Ephron advised wearing a bikini exclusively until you’re 34. That gives me two more years. I really wish I could take her advice. Ever since my late twenties, I’ve spent so much time thinking about what’s wrong with my body. What I still haven’t figured out is that, every year that goes by, I look back and think, “Christ, what was I worrying about?” Will I ever learn to love my legs? Or my upper arms? No. But have I entered a soothing bath of acceptance in my thirties? Of course I fucking haven’t.
Confidence, as I see it, is less about an Oprah-esque self-love-in and more about granting yourself permission
“Wot [sic] is it about men?” my mum texted me this morning. After Weinstein and Weiner and Trump and Cosby and O'Reilly and all the countless others, it’s a legitimate question. As much as I am loathe to admit it, my confidence has always danced with and around men. When I was single, my confidence basically kept running into a brick wall. Time and time again, my lack of confidence would leave me like a broken record, drinking cocktails with yet another plank of wood (I don’t like cocktails). And then I met someone. And my confidence soared like a firework in a dark November field. And isn’t it awful that a woman’s confidence can be so interwoven with the quality of a man’s behaviour?
But what about my confidence *in* men? What *is* it about men? If your father walks out when you are three weeks old, the confidence-in-men thing starts at a pretty low bar. And there’s so much that needs fixing, from the men online who threaten to rape women they disagree with to the institutionalised, systematic exploitation of power. My confidence in men – or should that be male privilege – is flimsy, held together by a rusty safety pin that is currently staggering to take the weight of their endless fuckwittery.
My confidence in my ability is the most exhausting one, though. Some days, I think I could actually do anything – as if standing on the top of a human pyramid – balancing my foot on the hands of Hillary, Oprah and Michelle, all jazz hands and determination. And then, other days, everything has collapsed and I’m on the heap of a floor, crushed by other people's successes. And anything can knock me off my Leslie Knope perch of optimism – a humblebrag tweet; the mention of a flight to some other city with palm trees. As high as my human pyramid may be some days, I really need to do some work on its foundation.
And where does this all this leave me? Confidence, as I see it, is less about an Oprah-esque self-love-in and more about granting yourself permission – permission to be treated with respect; permission to do or say something difficult; permission to fail; permission not to be repulsed by your own reflection; permission not to sell yourself short. And this has also started to happen: I’ve given myself permission not to be on a social-media platform that makes me feel awful and trust that my life doesn’t need validation through a carefully curated set of images. I’ve given myself permission to keep writing about men telling women to shut up, even when it causes more men to tell me to shut up. I’ve given myself permission to not pluck my eyebrows. I’ve given myself permission to have stronger, more meaningful relationships with fewer people. And, in this way, I’m slowly giving myself permission to be me.
Confidence in my thirties has certainly not arrived on time, like a next-day delivery, signed for and trackable. If anything, big chunks are eroding, crumbling away, disappearing before my eyes. But in their place, I hope, a new type of confidence is starting to grow – one that’s a bit stronger, a bit calmer and a bit kinder.