Reimagining beauty: Vix's body story

September 28, 2022

Reimagining beauty: Vix's body story

One of the first things that strikes you about Vix is her incredible style - she pulls together an outfit like nobody else, so it's no surprise that she works as a stylist. But this gives her a unique insight into fashion and beauty - and coping with alopecia and poor body image.

We wanted Vix to take part in this project because of the way cold water swimming has transformed her self-esteem. Her story, our final Body Story in our Reimagining Beauty series is a powerful tale of loss, growth and reconciliation. 

What is your idea of beauty?

My idea of beauty is much more holistic than it used to be. It's an energy. It's still an aesthetic, but it's not an aesthetic that falls into something traditional that we might see in a magazine or that would have historically been pitched as being beautiful. So, it's a turn of phrase, an energy, a twinkle. It's a way of being.

It’s such a weird one. The saying ‘beauty is only skin deep’ is interesting because we can easily identify things we think are beautiful – it’s a kind of instant yes or no feeling based on the way something looks, and that can be a person, an animal, a house, a view, a dress. And that beauty is subjective – we all find different things appealing in this skin deep way.

But true beauty is something quite different. I don’t think it’s possible to say someone is truly beautiful if you don’t know them. Because this beauty is more complex, it’s more about a look, a twinkle, a smile, a manner, a confidence. This kind of beauty radiates regardless of physical form.  

Beauty standards change. I was thinking about this the other day – what was considered to be beautiful a thousand years ago, 500 years ago, 50 years ago has changed. What was considered to be beautiful in the 90s where we had heroin chic was different. What's beautiful now is different to what was beautiful in the 70s, or the 60s, or the 50s, where women's curves were celebrated.

Where are we now with beauty? It’s all thrown up in the air a bit. I think magazines have less power over what we consider to be beautiful, but it's still very much an anchor to a lot of women.

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So, when do you think you first became conscious of beauty as a concept?

There were several key milestones along the way. I remember one pantomime where my hair wouldn't curl properly. Everybody had rollers in, and my hair was really thin and flat and my sister's hair curled beautifully. And I can remember one of my mum's friends saying, don't worry about that darling, you've got lovely cheekbones. And I was like, but my hair won't curl. What’s that got to do with anything? But then I was aware of not being sure what my cheekbones were like, and maybe I needed to investigate.

I’ve never considered myself to be beautiful in the skin-deep sense. But I’ve always been interested in fashion and beauty and developed an unhealthy obsession with magazines in my youth. I would design clothes in my sketchbooks and spend ages in my bedroom trying out different make up looks, playing with my hair and putting different outfits together.

I would hop on the bus on a Saturday morning into town, trawl the charity shops, buy some fabric and probably some hair dye and then spend the entire weekend on the sitting room floor making clothes and staining the bathroom whatever hair colour I had chosen that week.

I used to work in the newsagents next door to our house. I can remember looking in a magazine when I was working one day and seeing the fashion articles and just opening it and seeing this one picture where this lady was in layers and layers of cream knit, all different but all matching colours. And it just blew my mind. I was like, this is beautiful, but it was more. I couldn't tell you what she looked like, but the whole creativity of it was beautiful. 

So, image must have been important, but I don’t remember ever associating that with beauty. It was more about creativity and self-expression. I had – still have - a fascination with how we can use the way we look to tell a story or to send a message to the world about who we are. I developed a style that wasn’t fashion, or anyone else’s, it was mine, there were no rules. I didn’t wear what everyone else at school wore, but I didn’t do it to draw attention to myself, it just was. I could and still can walk into a charity shop (my favourite shops of all time) and just know there was something in there waiting for me. I bloody love second hand stuff. My parents used to own an antique shop so it must be in my veins!

While I didn’t necessarily associate these style obsessions with beauty, I did become increasingly aware that I didn’t look like the girls in the magazines. I remember walking down the steps to hockey one day with the girls from my class – aged about 12 or 13 – and I was watching all the legs go past in the window opposite, one pair stood out as being shorter and stockier than the others – whose were they, I wondered – oh, they were mine. I think from that moment on I felt more self conscious of my legs and more aware that I wasn’t a little drainpipe legged girl anymore. My body was changing and I wasn’t sure I liked it.

That was a pivotal moment in not beauty per se, but body awareness and body dissatisfaction.

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How did that affect your behaviour towards your body?

Thankfully, I think I was too lazy to do anything about it. I remember hearing about girls who took laxatives or had eating disorders, but I couldn’t be doing with any of that. I guess I knew deep down that was crazy and I didn’t hate the way I looked enough to do that. I guess I just evolved my style to accommodate my body hang ups. I was and still am drawn to baggy trousers and vest tops.

I was always happier with my top half, so felt comfortable as long as my bottom half was squirrelled away inside a giant pair of knock-off Maharishis or second-hand sailor jean flares. I mean, I used to go out and dance on the stage in a bikini top for years, but those legs always stayed well under wraps. Big trainers. Big trousers. Little tops. Big hoodies. Not much has changed to be honest!

But it was about the same time, when I was 13, that my hair started falling out due to alopecia. I had it in a ponytail at school one day (man, I still miss ponytails and beach hair) when someone pointed out a small bald patch at the back of my head, about the size of a 10p piece underneath the ponytail. I had no idea it was there. I went home that day and showed my mum and dad who were equally mystified. This definitely compounded things.

Up until this point I had enjoyed a very loving and creative relationship with my hair. I'd sort of flounced around and been all shiny and glossy. And then suddenly it wasn't there anymore, and that was really defining.

That’s a tough experience for anyone, especially a 13-year-old. How did you deal with it?

What followed is a bit of a blur. But it seemed no-one really knew what the deal was. I went from hair specialist to skin specialist to wherever else. I had no idea how hard my parents were working in the background to find an answer, but I ended up having acupuncture and guided meditation sessions, and a heavy course of supplements and miraculously, after a few months, it started to grow back.

Either I've blocked it from my mind, or it genuinely wasn't that bad, but I never got a hard time at school. And I'm really grateful for that because it was brutal and my mum and dad were amazing but they didn't know what was happening or what to do – there was very little understood about it. 

It doesn't affect your health directly, but it affects your mental health in so many ways, and your confidence, and your self-esteem, and your identity is all gone. At 13, that is the most critical time for development. I think actually it’s worse for teenage boys. There's a lot of places teenage girls can hide, whereas boys can't draw on eyebrows and wear a nice hat or wear a wig or use makeup to camouflage it. 

And, luckily for me at that point it grew back after a few months, and I was really grateful for that too.

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Did that experience change how you felt about your appearance?

Once my hair came back, it was business as usual. I loved it. I started using henna powder when I was about 15 and used to sleep with the stinky cowpat-like paste on my head, secured under a couple of carrier bags so that I could get the deepest, brightest, shiny orange hair possible. It made me so happy!

I still loved fashion and style, but I knew how to make the best of what I had, or I thought I did at the time, and that was baggy bottoms, smaller tops. Or sometimes, just baggy everything. By the time I got to my late teens, I never wore shorts, or short skirts, or skirts at all actually. My legs felt like they weren’t mine and I wanted to keep them hidden away for fear that someone might see them. I hated them. I became obsessed with other girls’ legs. There was a period of time where I swear if I had crashed my car it would’ve been because I was looking at some girls' legs as I drove past! Even though I knew it was madness I believed that having great legs made someone a better person. A more attractive person. A person more in control of their lives. It wasn’t healthy. My self-esteem took a battering.

And then, when I was 23, my hair fell out permanently. That was just shitty. It’s only hair, but it’s such a huge part of a person’s identity. Especially mine. My self-esteem continued to plummet. It was a dark time. I felt like a failure. I thought I had failed to manage my emotions properly and this was the result and I had to wear it like a badge of shame. I’d fucked up for all to see.

At that point, when it all went, it was really tough. Again, I had tremendous support, but it makes you realise that you cannot rely on what you look like to carry you through, and that changed me massively.

I think you do rely on looks, particularly as a woman, you know, a bat of an eyelid – it's easy, it's lazy, but we probably all do it. But when your hair falls out… I already felt quite stocky, and my hair was very feminine, long, shiny and glossy, and I did lots of nice things with it. And then when that was gone, and my eyelashes were gone, and then my eyebrows were gone, there was nowhere to hide. I felt really masculine and unattractive.

And so that took a long time to get over. But what it did cement with me, was that my looks are not who I am. This meat suit is not who I am. It's just what I've got, but it's not who I am. And it's really easy to be defined by how you see yourself, whether that's your hair or your physique, but that's not who you are. 

How do you feel about hair loss now, 25 years later?

That feeling didn’t last forever. It got better. I learned that I had to take ownership of my bald head rather than it taking ownership of me. The internet opened windows into other people’s lives that I hadn’t looked through before – there were other people out there dealing with the same shit and some of them were really struggling. Like lives ruined, suicidal, looking for wigs that they never ever took off so no-one would ever know. I saw the devastation this stupid disease could cause and realised that I didn’t feel like that.

It's hair at the end of the day, and it's traumatic and horrendous and people have horrendous experiences because of hair loss. I actually can't even read other people's stories on the alopecia forums because I find it so upsetting and so stressful.

I'm glad I negotiated it. I'm glad I that dealt with it. I'm glad that I don't have to deal with it happening again. I'm done with it and I don't want it to go back because I don't want to go through it again. My kids are at the age now when my hair first fell out, and I'm more stressed about the prospect of it happening to them than I was when it happened to me because I don't want to have to negotiate it with them.

It's such a big thing for self-esteem and confidence, and it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of fuck-ups to get over it. But I needed to stand up and be ok with my hair loss. So that other people saw and maybe it would help them feel more ok with their hair loss too. It’s been a long process. But it made me reimagine beauty. If I wanted to feel anywhere near beautiful I was going to have to work harder than just changing my hair or putting on mascara. I needed to dig deep and it changed me. It changed how I saw others. How people look isn’t always in their control. We get the bodies and personalities we get. It’s a cliché but it’s what we do with them that really counts.

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Hearing that, it makes sense that you work in the fashion industry as a stylist. Did your work help or hinder your journey to better body confidence?

At first, it was really hard because I was working with a lot of models who were very thin. But I think age is really helpful. I realised that some of the girls I worked with early on in my styling career who were very thin weren’t happy. There have been times where they fainted or refused to eat because they didn't want to be bloated, or they would chain smoke. It's a cliché, but it was happening and I saw it. It made me feel really sad.

I felt big. I've gone on shoots where I would wear a huge jumpsuit just to be like, well, you can't see what's going on here. And also with no hair… It's a really difficult one to reconcile because the purpose of what we were doing on those sort of beauty shoots was to make them look beautiful in a classic, stupid way.

I just don't like anything about the fashion industry in that way at all. It's just bizarre and unhealthy. I do think it is changing. More of my work now is with real people doing real things and, actually, that's been an eye opener because you're working with people who not always special to look at, but they're beautiful people.

I have met some of the most beautiful people and they're never people that you’d necessarily notice as they passed you on the street, but you spend a day with them and you fall in love with them. They are just interesting, kind and funny. Suddenly, you don't know what they look like anymore. Looks are not what it's about. I don't think you can call somebody beautiful, truly beautiful, if you don't know them.

So, the beauty side of it, I think, because I'm older I'm able to deal with it and separate myself from it. Sometimes I'll catch myself in the mirror when they're having their hair and makeup done and their skin is alabaster pure because they were like 20. And I look at myself, but then I think actually do you know what? I've earned these crinkles and I'm ok with it.

You have an incredible, individual style from the way you dress to your body art. How do express yourself?

I have a very specific vision and an eye for detail that you wouldn’t believe. To the untrained eye, anyone else’s except my own, something might look bang-on, but for me, the devil’s in the detail. Maybe I’m just a control freak – but it’s a feeling. When something isn’t right, I can feel it.

Equally, when something is right, it makes my head fizz. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a massive weirdo! But I cut and dye my own wigs these days, I never get my nails painted in a salon. If I wear make-up, I always do my own… In my job as a stylist I work with some amazing make-up artists, and in the past when they have kindly attended to my face just for fun, I have always rushed to the bathroom straight after and washed it all off. It’s just not me…. with the exception of this shoot for Deakin & Blue, actually, where I had my nails and my (thankfully minimal) make-up done by the lovely Pati and didn’t wipe to all off straight away!

Again, hair is a big part. We make judgements on people within, what is it? Like three seconds of meeting them or something. It’s like an identity, what you wear, hair, makeup, your tattoos. All these things are an indication to the world of who you are as a mark of self-expression. 

Without my hair, I did feel really disabled in that respect for a while. I was disarmed. But I've always been interested in identity in that way, and it being more of a feeling than 'I'll wear that because I'm told to wear that'.  I used to make a lot of my own clothes. I used to have a lot more piercings – maybe it was just a distraction, but I think it was a way of saying to the world this is who I am.

People still make judgements all the time. I still make judgements. I think it's just human nature. But then the key is to recognise it when you've done it and to say, hold on a minute, I've made a judgement based on what that person looks like as to who they are as well. Sometimes you’re probably right, but you have to give them a minute to prove that you’re right or wrong.

There are certain tribes that you want to ascribe to – or not, and people use things like tattoos differently. It's an interesting one, but I think it is still a form of identity and expression. I mean, for me, I like animals and I like illustration, and that’s what I’ve got on my arm.

But interestingly, I would never get tattoos on my legs because I don't like my legs still. I never ever think that when I see it on anybody else. I never judge people the way I judge myself, which is really weird and needs to change.

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How have you tried to change your narrative?

The last few years I'm trying to see myself the way that I would see other people, and it's hard. I think after a lifetime of judging yourself so harshly and seeing yourself in a particular way, it's difficult to change. But it's possible. And I think what's making it easier now is that I realise that we have a responsibility as adults to the younger generation to say 'it doesn't matter'.

The other thing for me has been sports. I had always been a keen engager in sports, I represented every possible team throughout school and competed in county athletics. I loved it. After having my kids I started running again and it was my way of keeping fit both physically and mentally.

Then I broke my ankle very badly in a free pseudo-gymnastic accident – an enthusiastic round-off onto a rogue tree root put me hospital for four operations over nearly three weeks. They rebuilt me with a lot of metal work and nine months of rehab. But it became clear that walking was never going to be the same – my ankle no longer bends forwards so my knee and hips have to accommodate this. And running, I was categorically informed by my consultant, was off the table.

When I could no longer do that I became pretty low. And then my friend suggested she take me swimming to our local pool so I could bob about in the water for a bit while her daughter had her swimming lesson (thank you Claire). I accepted. It was scary. I’d swum quite a lot before my accident and I’d had hydrotherapy as part of my rehab, but being poolside on my own with a crutch felt precarious. The team there were amazing though and I soon discovered that being in the water felt amazing. And swimming helped improve my mobility.

So, I was pounding up and down the pool several times a week. My right leg and buttock had wasted after almost a year of not doing anything but swimming helped me to start to feel stronger again. Then I started body pump classes again. My confidence grew as I grew stronger. I think it was about now that I began to realise that I didn’t hate my body as much as I used to. I was never going to be thin or graceful again like I was in my juvenile ballet dancing days, but being strong made me feel good.

Then one Friday morning in September 2019 I found myself wrapped in my friend Neil’s DryRobe stood by the side of Clevedon Marine lake about to experience cold water swimming for the first time with a coach and her Winter Warriors swimming group. I didn’t know it at the time but this was her first Winter Warriors cohort. And it was about to change my life forever [Vix wanted to point out that she is now crying – ed]. I bloody loved it. I loved the cold water, I loved the people, I loved the place, I loved those Winter Warriors.

And Clevedon Marine Lake soon became my regular swim spot. We swam throughout the winter, even when the air temperature read -3 degrees and the water was at 0! We talked about how it made us feel – apart from just fucking cold and then shivery and then tingly and then mental! How it was helping us physically and mentally. It became a bit of a lifeline for some. A truly special group. I started swimming elsewhere outdoors. It became an addiction of sorts. And I realised that this was definitely preferable to pounding up and down a chlorine-y, enclosed pool through old plasters and rogue hairs.

But what I really noticed was the people. They weren’t neat and tidy costume clad glamazons. They were real people, spilling out here and there, hairy, not hairy, lumpy, big, small, old, young, but I didn’t see any of that. I just saw people having the time of their lives, doing this incredible thing, buzzing, laughing, hugging, crying, some whooping, some silently slipping into the cool waters. I felt so unseen it was brilliant. No-one cared! These were brilliant, beautiful people just going about their business, cheering themselves up, cheering each other up without a thought for what they looked like in their swimmers. I felt alive.

It was so liberating. I started wearing shorts again. I stopped worrying about whether my bum and legs were offending people. The more I did it, the more I do it, the easier it gets. Maybe it’s partly my age, I feel no pressure to look like a 20-year-old anymore, but maybe it’s just waking up and realising that life is too fucking short for that shit.

And actually, we as grown-ups have a responsibility to young people today, particularly but not exclusively to girls, to show them that beautiful isn’t what they see on a curated, filtered phone screen. Beautiful is a lust for life. Beautiful is freedom from the shackles of media driven expectation. Beautiful is taking up the space you deserve. Beautiful is running into the sea in your pants. Or without your pants – whatever!

Beautiful is being open to what real beauty is. The less we judge, the less we feel judged. As parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts we have to choose the words we use around our children carefully. A flippant comment about a girl’s weight can weigh heavy for a lifetime if it hits at that critical moment of development. If we won’t wear the shorts, what message are we sending to them? Wear the shorts, show her that she can too. Without fear of judgement… for sure there will always be people who judge but know that their judgements speak volumes about them and their insecurities and have absolutely nothing to do with you and your lovely shorts!

I’m still learning, but if you’d have told me even five years ago that I would be modelling for a swimwear campaign, in a swimsuit, with my everything out for all to see I would have just shaken my head, like, I don’t want people to see the real me. But this is the real me. Who I am and what I look like. Look after your meatsuit, it’s here to stay. You might as well learn to love it.

Kindness, laughter, openness, fearlessness, honesty, integrity, silliness, connection, humility, empathy… these are things I find beautiful these days. And things I am working on in myself too.

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