Reader, I've often found mirrors a really odd thing. I mean, a good mirror with great lighting can make you feel like an A-lister with curves (or muscles) in all the right places. Bad lighting and positioning (John Lewis, I'm looking at you) makes you feel like an obese person with sallow skin and you decide never to leave the house ever again. On a trip to John Lewis in Cardiff recently I was nearly reduced to tears by what I saw and wore baggy jumpers for a week. But mirrors lie. Because you never really see what other people are seeing and it's completely dependent on a certain light, usually in a cramped little box of a changing room. You're seeing a flipped version of yourself, distorted slightly in a flat plane of glass, not unconscious and unaware and in free flow. And what's really interesting is that a reflection can be completely objective. There's this amazing video by Dove where they get a crime artist to sketch women as they describe themselves. Then they get complete strangers to describe what the women look like, and inevitably the pictures described by the women themselves were far harsher than the strangers and they didn't even notice the really incredible, attractive things about themselves.
And to be fair, the pictures described by the strangers come out looking far more like the women actually look. It's a really beautiful exercise in self confidence, but I also find it really interesting as a slightly scientific study in perception. I'm quite critical of myself, but have always put that down to being an actor and needing to have an honest grasp of what other people see, because most of the time, that's how you're initially cast-on image. I try to remain very impartial, but because so many of my peers are tiny weenie and drop dead gorgeous, I always feel a bit like the chunky giant with wonky teeth and a bent nose lumbering among them. I'm not saying I feel ugly, my mum instilled a healthy dose of 'if your body works and you think nice thoughts and do nice things, then you are beautiful' into me, but I do see my imperfections very clearly. However, I sometimes wonder where the line is between an honest and objective critique of myself as someone on screen and in print and just being a human being who sees the bad more than the good (as is the natural downfall of most humans). One of my most beautiful friends Lady Luxe, who has the most incredible figure I've ever seen, an elfin, model like face and this incredible sense of style thinks she is in need of a diet, has bad skin and hair and that her boobs need to be bigger. Which always makes my jaw drop, because she is utterly stunning and I regularly describe her as 'a goddess' to people that haven't met her. Ditto one of my oldest friends, The Bride, who has the most incredible thick glossy hair, beautiful almost black eyes and this fabulous, heart shaped face. She just can't see the same reflection that I see. Isn't that weird? That we can't see the things that other people think are amazing? Or that we just see something completely different? Sometimes it's such a severe thing that it becomes an actual disease; 'Body Dismorphic Disorder', which is a leading cause of anorexia and bulimia. We create this fake, out of proportion, misshapen creature in our heads that looks vaguely like us, but isn't really.
You can watch the (really lovely and worth a view) video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=litXW91UauE
In the meantime, as a bit of an experiment, I asked my followers on facebook and twitter to privately message me with an objective and honest description of what I look like, without trying to be flattering to me, as if they were describing me to someone who had never met me. It was less about trying to boost my self confidence (as in the Dove film) than trying to work out if what I saw in the mirror was a true reflection of what I really look like, because although I pride myself about being quite sensible and practical about how I appear, I'm almost certain that others see me differently. While I was waiting, I looked in the mirror and tried to unemotionally describe myself as honestly as I could.
I'm sort of 'alright looking'. I wouldn't call myself beautiful by any account, but I don't think I'd scare small kids away too much. My hair is coppery red, and goes down to just past my breasts. It's actually a bit too long at the moment and is in dire need of a good cut, loads of split ends from a few years of letting it grow and trimming it myself. It doesn't ever really do what I tell it to and looks scruffy most of the time, but I like the colour I have it at now. My fringe has a life of its own and likes to point upwards (particularly my cow's lick on the right hand side) as if trying to answer a question. I'm very very pale, more yellow than pink skinned and I have lots of freckles, which in the summertime come out and make me look about 12 and in the winter fade and just make my skin look a bit uneven. They're not cute-just-over-my-nose-in-a-very-sweet-way-freckles, they're sandblasted all over my chin, upper lip and forehead as well, as if a small but excitable moth decided to disco dance on my face while I was sleeping. I have quite full, very pale pink lips, and wonky teeth that I try and hide when I smile or laugh and always feel a bit self conscious about. When I talk, my mouth does odd things and makes odd shapes, it doesn't look like a normal mouth, more like a strange Picasso mouth. My nose has a bump in it from where I skiied into the french rugby team when I was 13 (don't ask) but I've actually grown to quite like that, because it makes me look a bit interesting. My eyes are a nice colour, dark green, which in direct light turn blue, and I have a streak of gold through one of them which I only noticed when I started getting headshots. I have dark patches under my eyes though, which never ever fade and make me look tired, and I'm starting to get little laughter lines. I have one very big wrinkle between my eyebrows (I blame squinting too much). I have dark, thick eyebrows, which are quite arched, making me look either quizzical or suggestive. Those definitely come from my dad, whose eyebrows regularly try to take over his forehead, but which on a man look dashing. On a woman they look a bit surprising, like someone magic markered them on. I have large (I always forget quite how large), pointy ears, quite high cheekbones and a sort of angular long face. There's a beauty mark under my right eye that make up artists keep trying to rub off because it looks a bit like I'm just grubby. I have a long, pale neck (which I like), but slightly rounded shoulders (which I don't). My arms are quite slender, but very very long. I'm a bit apelike. Or, if I'm dancing madly, like one of those inflatable armed sticks you see outside of car dealerships. My boobs are quite big and quite a nice shape (even though they're lower than they used to be, but I still pass the pencil test-hurrah!), and my waist is quite small (and ridiculously high up meaning I have to be careful what I wear because if I wear something low waisted I tend to look like a big square), but NOTHING is toned. I have what I would describe as a flubby belly that pokes out and rather than just laying flat has a slightly more pokey outey bit under my belly button (as if my womb has to be extra protected by a layer of fat), I can't really wear pencil skirts because of it and my ginormous, very rounded hips, which a kind relative recently described as 'child bearing'. They are the main reason I try to steer clear of trousers. My legs are long, but have huge thighs and my bum is enormous and not in a lovely Brazilian way (more in a flat, back of a lorry, English way with loads of cellulite, which is mostly my fault for being a lazy cow and practically never exercising) and I have very knobbly knees. My calves are quite slender and curved and I have tiny ankles (which may be my favourite part of my body) but my feet are quite flat and long, with odd looking, blobby toes. In all, in the right underwear, with my mouth closed, from quite far away, I look alright. But up close I'm sort of messy and misshapen looking. I dress a bit like someone who'd like to be a grown up at some stage but doesn't quite now how to make it look easy or fit it all together. I don't hate the way I look, because I think it's a waste of time, but I sometimes wish I had a fairy wand to wave over myself, especially when I'm with my beautiful friends who are petite and perfect.
Isn't that odd Reader? I tried to be objective and scientific, but I think it's quite obvious that as soon as my pen touched the paper that just wasn't going to happen. And for a girl who thinks she views her own image very sensibly due to her career being very image based, it turned out very emotional and weirdly trying to justify how I see myself. So I put out this call for people to describe me objectively (also asking a lot of people that I've only met in passing as well as people I've known for years who are some of my most honest critics) and waited, slightly anxiously for 'You're a bit soft around the edges' and 'Sort of oddly put together' to turn up.
An hour later I had 15 messages in my inbox. Deciding to wait till the morning I went to sleep, resisting the slightly masochistic urge to read them all at once at 1am.
When I woke up, I had even more, so I sat down and read through them all. They couldn't have been more different to what I'd written if they'd tried. Some of them I didn't include because they had misunderstood what I was asking for and just written about personality (or, in my mum's case, been family and therefore biased), but here are a few:
'Aislinn has a very feminine look with a strength that comes from her high arching eyebrows and
pointed features. These go with a distinct Irish colouring: a pale, gently freckled face framed by
sometimes soft, sometimes wild, waves of red hair'
'I'd describe you as looking like Judy garland, but when you speak you also have a bit of Christian
Bale in there - a bit weird yes, but i've always thought you could be his sister!'
'Like a red haired Venus doll who also has a look of Christian bale'
'A bubbly redhead with a sassy smile. An elegantly defined facial structure with striking eyes set
against pastel toned skin.'
' she's shorter than me, say, about 5ft4"? And teeny tiny, like waif like, red hair, big eyes, very sort of
vintage looking, but thinner. She's got a bit of a strange look to her, like attractive but not
'Striking red-head, head-turner, unique look - something out of the ordinary, fair skinned which
highlights the hair further,pretty and light-skinned, slim but curvy - looks like she keeps herself in
shape - slim but not skinny.'
'I think I'd describe your appearance on first viewing as a bit of an amalgamation; cute, elfin face
which would work well in fantasy films, combines with colourful blocks of retro clothing. And of
course, a smile on your face as if we'd been friends all our lives rather than meeting for the first time!'
'Scar-Jo, with warmth'
'Sophie Ellis Bextor but more gorgeous'
'I know I haven't seen you in a while, but I SERIOUSLY think you look like Taylor Swift who's
classy and demure by the way'
'Tall, Slim build, finely featured, hair striking shade of red and well cared for, stylish sense of dress'
'Ash has the vintage look of Paloma Faith combined with the looks of Lana Del Rey with an enviable
figure and a very warming face'
'A red haired Sandra Bullock, with a similar sense of humour. Very warm, open face and huge eyes.
Pin-up style body with perfect skin'
'Beautiful. In the totally British sense. An English rose likened to that of kate winslet in titanic era'
'Well, it's been a while - the last time I saw you was probably 10+ years ago, so I'd say then you looked
like an elfin Harry Potter (the hair). I'd say nowadays you look like a 1930s vamp.'
If I was going to draw a picture of my own description and the descriptions of those that have met me, they would come out like two entirely different people. What was really interesting to me was that all of the little things that I pick out about myself as being weird things, or things that aren't particularly attractive, no one else seems to notice-they explain me as a whole person, not as 'broken nosed' or 'flubby on the belly'. And while I tried to think of famous people I might look like and couldn't think of any, they found loads. The Christian Bale references made me laugh rather a lot, because a guy I fancied told me that I looked like him and I laughed my socks off, thinking he was joking but it seems to be true!
The thing is, image is entirely subjective. Never in a million years would I describe myself as 'slim' but people seems to think I am. And I'm kind of overwhelmed by the response. It puts those days when you feel like everyone's noticing how fat and odd you look into perspective really, doesn't it? I always thought I was fair to myself, as someone who deals with how they look as part of their career-but it seems like I'm just as self conscious as everyone else. Last night, when I was explaining this post to my lovely housemate, I said 'I mean, I'm an actor, but I think I'm also a bit of a girl'. She laughed her socks off at me, yelling, 'NEWSFLASH: ASH IS A HUMAN GIRL!' but it's true! I think being an actor means you have to self critique a lot but it's easy go a bit overboard and still think you're being objective. The thing is, we are human and therefore, try as we might to suppress it, are vain, fretting creatures.
I wonder what my friends and family would say if they described themselves-but I can bet you anything it would be very different to how I would.
Thank you so much to everyone that contributed to this blog post-I'm really touched and-unexpectedly, although it was not the aim of this experiment, the things that I look in the mirror and wince at seem far less obvious to me now.
Reader, I hope you realise how beautiful you are, inside and out!