I always look crap on holiday. It's an old tradition, like fish 'n' chips or Sangria.
I don’t know how I looked on my travels before the age of 17 because at that time I was unaware of the Cosmopolitan Commandment:
Thou shalt always look amazing on holiday.
This had never been an issue, since as a small child I mainly went on day trips to Hastings. Then when I was ten, my Dad inherited his father’s Ford Anglia and drove us to far-flung Wales, where you could still buy setting lotion if your hair went wild.
At 17 I went Interrailing with friends, some of them very glamorous. While I had packed practical stuff, their rucksacks spilled out hair products and sexy dresses. The pressure to look good infected me like a dose of holiday tummy. I took my turn with the time-shared turquoise off-the-shoulder dress in which we wowed the Paris fashion scene.
As we ventured further South, though, my holiday curse took hold. In the Italian sunshine, I burned every visible skin surface, including my eyelids, while the rest of me remained white. I was feasted on by mosquitoes which ignored everyone else.
I was already heavier than my friends, which wasn’t the end of the world in school uniform, but when we arrived at the beach in Rimini, I saw my bikini body beside theirs, and knew that I was fat.
I also had swollen eyelids, was covered in livid lumps and had the skin tone of a raspberry ripple.
The Adriatic sand got in my hair and in all our towels, condemning me to another holiday tradition – rubbish hair.
Over the years since, I have read all the advice, bought all the products and dared to believe that this year I’ll look my best in the holiday snaps – legs Veet-smooth and Holiday Skin-brown, hair Frizz-eased and straightened, toenails polished, outfits rigorously vetted for fit and style.
But every year comes that moment of realisation, as my hair takes on the texture of a brillo pad and my bites turn into scars that last weeks longer than my tan – oh yes! Who was I kidding? I always look terrible on holiday.
Things are not improving. I am fifty-four. I have hair that goes insane in humidity. I swell up in hot weather, and on planes. My feet and ankles are allergic to EVERYTHING, causing angry red rashes – really fetching in sandals!
So this year when we went away over Easter, I had to ban Holiday Skin and face the world with winter-white legs.
We were off to visit my son, who I hadn’t seen for 6 months because he has moved to Vietnam – my favourite place in the world.
And after all these years of failing to have a beach body or a sunkissed look or pretty hair –something dawned on me…
What if this holiday is not about what I look like?
What if it actually doesn’t matter?
Before I went away I heard an overweight woman on the radio. She said she’d read that women can spend up to 60% of their brainpower thinking about weight and dieting. She thought, what could we achieve if we used that brainpower for other things? And so she stopped caring about how much she weighed – and she was healthy, and happy, and achieved great things.
What if during our two weeks away, I could just decide not to care?
There’s always a beautiful woman on the beach, isn’t there? She’s young, slim and tanned; her hair, nails and skin look perfect and her bikini fits her beautifully. But does she look happy? She doesn’t, does she? She’s often in a strop with a handsome youth who’s worshipping at the foot of her beach towel.
I will never look like her, and yet holidays have been my happiest times. Imagine that! I remember exploring the world with my boys, relishing our annual Welsh pilgrimage with the wider family, and discovering foreign cities with my husband. I don’t remember how I looked.
So off we flew to Moscow and on to Hanoi, and my ankles swelled and made my legs into treetrunks.
In our Airbnb, I stood on a stool to hang something up, and it tipped over. I crashed through it, enhancing my pasty granny legs with black bruising which covered my whole calf and turned an interesting green.
I wasn’t even getting brown – the sun in Hanoi creates a hazy sauna that doesn’t so much tan you as steam you.
In soupy humidity, my hair went through a brassy brillo look before reaching peak candy floss as the heat soared. My cheapskate Wilco bug spray didn’t work, and my bites turned into attractive blood blisters.
And I didn’t care. I made reasonable efforts to look presentable and stay cool, and I let the rest go. I looked as terrible as ever, but I loved being with my son in his new home. I loved Hanoi and Danang and national parks we visited. I loved the people, the food, the astonishing scenery, the quirkiness, the craziness, the ancient and modern wonders that make up Vietnam.
The beauty industry has made suckers of us all, but I don’t buy it any more. It’s NOT what you look like that makes a holiday – it’s what you’re looking at and who you’re with.
And the most beautiful thing you can wear in those holiday photos is a great big carefree smile.