The Kindness of Strangers

635999257015757101-206990663_FacebookFriends.jpgI met my soulmates online. Not through a dating site but through a Facebook group spawned from a Guardian column. I can hear the eye rolling and screaming “online friendships aren’t real!” from here. But they were real enough for me to travel 200 miles in 2012 to meet 30 women I’d never encountered anywhere but online. My mum called them my imaginary friends but those women gave me the glue to hold myself together after her death.

It all happened completely by accident. In early 2012 I turned 30 and decided to overhaul my beauty “routine.” I use the word routine loosely because at the time my twice daily ritual involved washing my face with soap and using whatever cheap moisturiser I could pick up at the supermarket. My makeup skills were nonexistent and this was before the ubiquity of YouTube tutorials. One Friday night I Googled “How to apply flicky eyeliner” and found this Guardian piece by Sali Hughes. A bit more digging and I found a Facebook group called Sali Hughes: Get The Look. Little did I know that joining the group would change my life.

There’s a feeling that the anonymity of the internet can bring out the worst in people, you can say things online that you would never dare to say to someone’s face but I found that posting under an alias, as I did on the Facebook group, allowed me to be more honest than I would be in person. I could openly talk about my mental health battles, relationship woes and embarrassing topics without fear of judgement. The group was the first place I posted about my mum’s terminal cancer diagnosis when I was still raw and weeping. I received private messages almost immediately from supportive women and the transition from virtual to “real” friend began.

I found myself checking in on the group every day and the friendly faces became a constant source of support and humour during the most horrific period of my life. Like any community things constantly evolve and I became a member of spin off groups where friendships deepened. The GTL Facebook group closed in 2013, moving to a proper online forum which made following threads and topics a lot easier. Facebook is a great and easy tool to use on the go but near impossible to search for a thread on a group with 5000+ members across the world posting throughout the day.

The first meet up I attended in 2012 was truly the beginning of some amazing friendships. To anyone who tells me that these aren’t “real” friends I will remind them that I have drunk with these women, danced with them, held their babies, met their partners, slept in their homes. I spent my first motherless Mother’s Day travelling back from a weekend in the Lake District with a group of these friends and one in particular held me as I quietly cried at the radio dedications to mothers who were very much alive. After mum passed away in 2013 I received sympathy cards from all over the country and the most amazingly generous gifts, including a spa day and a Tiffany necklace, the result of a whip-round from the women I’d met and some I was still to meet. One of the friends I made online came to mum’s funeral, an act of kindness I will never forget. In the years that followed when my sanity was hanging by a thread these women offered me emotional and practical support. When PTSD nightmares disturbed my sleep and my waking hours were spent in a fog of disordered thoughts I always found someone willing to listen to my ramblings. Sometimes I just needed to rant at the world (there’s a “Can We Have a Fuck Off Thread?” on the forum that I hang out on a lot) and sometimes I wanted to celebrate the small achievements like going outside when anxiety had rendered me housebound for days on end. The group were there for me through it all.

Of course, this being the internet it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, utopia doesn’t exist online. You simply cannot have a space with a large group of humans where everyone agrees with each other. There have been fights and flounces and I’ve even been guilty of both. But if you ever feel your faith in humanity slipping, join the Sali Hughes Beauty Forum and search for Carey Lander or Sarcoma UK. Carey, a talented musician and member of Camera Obscura was a SHB forum member, close friend of Sali and was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2015 at the age of 33. She wanted to leave a legacy by raising money for a woefully underfunded rare cancer, setting up a fundraising page which eventually totalled over £100,000. The forum rallied with prize draws, members selling valuable items for the charity and the forum’s fundraising efforts were in the thousands. On the day of Carey’s funeral forum members posted on a selfies thread wearing Carey’s signature red lip and animal print. Over 200 faces flooded the site, including many members who’d never posted pictures of themselves before. It was incredibly moving and I often find myself scrolling through, reading the messages and feeling proud to be part of such a group.

The main criticism I get when I tell people I met some of the Best Humans Ever TM on a beauty group is that we must be a bunch of vacuous twats. Firstly, don’t talk shit about my friends. Secondly, the women I have encountered have been some of the cleverest, funniest, most talented people you will ever (or never) meet. Beauty may be in the name of the forum but it’s so much more than that (just like Jaws isn’t about a shark and ET isn’t about an alien). I see acts of kindness on a daily basis and my social media streams are full of pictures of friendships forged online. Some of the women I speak to almost daily I may never meet in “real life” due to geography or circumstance but that doesn’t make them any less important to me.

Did I change my beauty routine? Yes, I thankfully don’t wash my face with Dove soap anymore. I sometimes splurge more money on a lipstick than I used to spend in a year on supermarket moisturiser but that’s my choice. What I do with my face and body is and will always be for me, not for anyone else. Do I have any regrets? Well, despite it leading me to the best friends I could ask for, I never did master that flicky eyeliner…

Disclaimer: In this cynical, cynical world we inhabit I would like to point out this is not some kind of ad or puff piece. I have never met Sali Hughes or been asked to write this. I just really love these women and wanted to celebrate them.

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Breaking the silence

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I apologised to my rapist. It took me five years to write that sentence and will take me many more years to understand why. What happened that night in August 2011 has haunted my dreams, damaged my friendships and obliterated my trust in men.

I relive that night and the aftermath frequently. I know my rapist. He was a close friend. He’s the husband of one of my best friends. Before today we were the only two people who know what happened that night.Read More »

Just a bit of banter…

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I’ll always remember the first time I encountered sexual harassment in the workplace. I was 17, new to a small company where I was the only female employee. I was encouraged by my boss to be “one of the boys” and join in with the office banter which seemed to revolve around critiquing the tits of the models in lads magazines. I shared an office with Peter, who was in his late 30’s and proudly displayed pictures of his wife and children next to his desk. Peter became really interested in finding out about my life and would quiz me on my breaks. Did I have a boyfriend? Had I had a lot of previous boyfriends? Where did I like to go out? Had I ever had plastic surgery? I felt uncomfortable with his questions, especially when I found out he was relaying my answers to the rest of the team when I wasn’t around.

Peter kept finding ways to come over to my desk, usually under the pretence of borrowing some stationery. He liked to put his hands on my shoulders and slyly look down my top or he’d reach past me and brush his hand against my chest. I started wearing high necks and baggy clothes to deter him. I told him I didn’t like having my personal space invaded but he didn’t listen. I was friendly, smiley and chatty with anyone who came into the office but when we had client meetings I’d often hear one of the guys say, “Watch out for her, she’s a maneater.” I’d blush with embarrassment and tell them to shut up but it just seemed to encourage them.Read More »

A Letter to My Dad, the Accidental Feminist

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Dear Dad,

You might not know what the word means (it’s not about women refusing to shave under their arms) and this morning you may have joked that “every day is International Women’s Day” but whether you like it or not you are a feminist.

The foundation of feminism is equality of the sexes. You raised my brother and I as equals. You brought me up to believe I was capable of anything I put my mind to. You were more disappointed than Mum when I left school at 16 because you felt I was throwing my life away. Now you brag to your friends about how hard I work when you think I can’t hear you.

You taught me how to cook and secretly enjoyed putting on an apron to make rice crispy cakes after a hard day at work. Despite getting up at 4am every day you always sat with me after school, helped with my homework and answered endless questions with minimal teeth gritting. Although I am still waiting on a satisfactory answer to “why is the sky blue?”

When I studied the Second World War at school you watched the entire series of The World at War with me (all 22 and a half hours). You cried watching the tapes; it was the first time I had ever really seen you upset. Now I see you cry all the time – at the end of Erin Brockovich, watching Call the Midwife, Toy Story 3, The Green Mile… Of course you swore me to secrecy on the tears because it’s not the manly thing to do (sorry).

When I left home at 17 you didn’t attempt to stop me. You made it clear that I had to make my own mistakes and learn from them. At the age of 20 I stood on your doorstep with a couple of bin bags of my belongings, fleeing an abusive partner. At the time you had no idea that opening the door to me and allowing me to stay actually saved my life.

You are by no means perfect but you gave me the tools to survive in a world where women are still seen as the weaker sex. When I suffered from depression you did your very best to understand what I was going through. Since Mum died 18 months ago you have had to fill both parental roles. I don’t ever say this but you’re doing a good job.

Thanks for the stubborn streak and encouraging me not to back down in a fight.

Love from your “pudding”

xxx