It is supposed to be taboo but I think I look thin and fabulous, so what’s wrong with saying so? asks Helena Frith Powell
A tall, slim woman in her thirties wafts across the room – all thick glossy hair, blemish-free skin, clear eyes, full lips and an air of confidence normally reserved for French women from the bon quartier of Paris. Or at least this is how I believe I look as I walk across the restaurant to my table.
Admittedly, in reality, I’m in my mid 50s, bespectacled and rather less blessed in the hair department. But the fact is I feel absolutely fabulous.
To the extent that there are days I wonder whether I should offer my services to a modelling agency for the slightly older generation. And when people tell me that my daughters, now 22 and 21, and I look like sisters, I believe them.
Of course, it is taboo for a woman to admit she is even vaguely happy with her looks. Particularly a woman of a certain age. You risk sounding conceited or self-satisfied at best, deranged at worst. I am none of those things, but while this sort of self-acceptance is so rare saying it loud feels subversive, I am happy with the way I look.
Reading Caitlin Moran’s article recently about how she suffers not so much from body dysmorphia (a mental ailment whereby you see body defects that don’t in fact exist), but reverse dysmorphia or what she terms body ‘eumorphia’, I realised with a thrill of recognition that I do too.
I genuinely wake up most mornings convinced I look great. I feel thin, fit, good looking and ready to take on the day. And untrue though this may be, I see no flaws, imagined or otherwise, to ruin the mood. If that counts as ‘reverse body dysmorphia’, then that might be what I’ve got.
I look pretty much the same as I did 20 years ago, sometimes even better as I spent most of my 30s either pregnant, covered in baby sick and/or sleep deprived to the point of madness. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I am actually more confident in my looks now, possibly because the pressure is off. As I am no longer a young woman, no one expects me to look fabulous.
Unlike a lot of women of a certain age, I haven’t given up on myself – because of the reverse dysmorphia. It is the continuing fight to retain this positive self-image that keeps me slim and healthy. Because I feel good about myself, and want to keep it that way, I take care of myself.
I exercise every day, try to stick to intermittent fasting at least three times a week (doing all my eating in an eight-hour slot so as to give my body 16 hours to rejuvenate), I will always pick the healthy option when it comes to food, and most weeks I have at least three to four days off booze. I cleanse my skin morning and night and invest heavily in creams that promise to make a difference.
Among my friends who are not lucky enough to suffer from reverse body dysmorphia I see two main tendencies: one is to surrender unconditionally, abandoning their former sense of style, gaining weight, wearing ‘comfortable’ clothes and relegating frivolities such as nail varnish and heels to a dim and distant past. The other is to panic and go for radical solutions that fool nobody, such as facelifts, often resulting in them looking like rather unsettling versions of Madonna. The fact is that to remain looking good in your fifties is bloody hard work.
So why do I bother? Vanity, pure vanity. Because looking and feeling good are much more important to me now than they were when I was younger. And I have now more time and more money to give it my best shot.
My role models include Jane Seymour, Isabelle Huppert and Gillian Anderson, all women who do just that and who seem to me to be improving with age, rather like a good wine. I find there is a correlation between how much effort I am making in terms of exercise and appearance and the reactions I get. ‘You look in very good shape,’ my husband will say, a man who is not overly generous with his compliments.
I remember about 15 years ago running into a silver-haired lady in a department store in Paris looking at lacy underwear. I was researching the French obsession with matching smalls. I asked her why she bought underwear. She looked at me as if I had just landed from another planet. ‘To look sexy, of course,’ was her response. At the time, I was rather surprised to discover that a woman of her age thought she could look sexy – now it’s my own narrow-minded reaction that shocks me.
There are a few of my friends who tear themselves apart when talking about their looks, but I’m pleased to say that most of them are pretty content, and rightly so. I’m increasingly impressed with how good women of a certain age look, with their husbands often seriously lagging behind. At my son’s school leaving ceremony last year it looked as if some of the other mothers had come along with their fathers.
There are moments, of course, when I waver. Mainly when my daughters borrow my clothes and look much better in them than I do. In fact, they look like I want to look in them. Sometimes I wonder if I should stop letting them anywhere near my wardrobe.
But then I remember that they look like a prettier, younger version of me and feel proud of them. Another reason to age with grace and some kind of satisfaction.
But it has to be said that there are times when the delusion catches up with me.
I’ve been a size 8-10 all my life. After my three children I was a 10, which I could live with. But post-lockdown I’ve teered towards a size 12 – not that it would ever occur to me to buy anything larger than a ten. I recently ordered some stretchy size 10s as a compromise – needless to say they were too small.
According to researchers at the University of Western Australia, our perception of our bodies is based on ‘a distortion created by our blended past observations…because the brain combines our past and present experiences, it creates an illusion whereby we appear thinner than we actually are.’
So it’s totally rational that I’m convinced that I am the same size I was ten years ago. And I shall continue to be so.
I’ll probably end up like my 89-year-old mother-in-law, who says she is always taken aback when she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror. ‘Who on earth is that old lady?’ she thinks, and then realises it’s her.
But is it harmful? Should this reverse dysmorphia become a disorder all of its own? No, according to Floss Knight, a psychotherapist, CEO and founder of UK Therapy Guide, an online portal that connects clients with qualified therapists.
‘It sounds like you are using mechanisms to minimise the cognitive dissonance between what you look like and what you want to look like. There is no harm in this as long as the self-image you have doesn’t completely take over and you lose your grip on the truth.’
I will undoubtedly be lambasted for my reverse dysmorphia but why on earth shouldn’t you be the best version of yourself and own that glorious self-image until they drag you out kicking and screaming? What is the point in wandering around thinking ‘I’m getting older, fatter, shorter and less attractive by the minute’ when you could just ignore all that and join me in my reverse dysmorphia which if nothing may bring you some positive results as you take up weapons against the ageing process.
As the poet T.S. Eliot summed up: ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality.’ A man who clearly understood reverse dysmorphia long before the rest of us.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019