I wrote recently that I would commit to a “joy strategy”: I am here to confess I have absolutely not done that and am, in fact, wilfully refusing to enjoy myself at all. You might be aware that “hate dressing” is a pandemic phenomenon.
“A hate-wear,’ says the New York Times, where I first read about it, “is when you put on the clothing even though – because? – it makes you feel bad.” I felt wild relief. I was not alone in contrarily picking out my worst clothes every day of lockdown: the cardigan with the sex appeal of a used dishcloth or trousers so unflattering I was inexplicably compelled to buy a second pair. I cannot admit in a public forum how long I have been wearing today’s jumper or someone will alert social services. I look like a dog trainer going through a bad divorce, after a tough day at the canine coalface. Friends are also indulging in what one calls “a furious yet lazy fabric protest”, citing alternating pairs of ugly leggings, a predilection for “weird synthetics” and misshapen shirts.
The problem is, I haven’t stopped at hate dressing: I think I am now hate living. I take grim satisfaction in preparing hate lunches from whatever is oldest and least appealing: fizzy hummus, a heel of hard bread and some silage-like salad drawer rejects is a favourite; my signature “punishment soup” (slimy with a bullying note of turmeric) is another.
My two main leisure activities are hate ones: scratching my toe until it bleeds, and ironing. I even ironed a fitted sheet yesterday, surely the least rewarding human activity. Spurning the riches of the golden age of telly, I have spent weeks watching an interminable Australian cooking competition from 2011: I have even managed to spoiler myself for the winner, so there’s not even any suspense. My insistence on wearing hate glasses – lenses smudgy and scratched, prescription eight years out of date – has become a bone of contention in our household. Every time my husband comes in and finds me squinting two inches from my computer screen, we have the same exchange: “Opticians are open, you know your prescription, you can just get new glasses,” he says, exasperated. “I only like these glasses,” I reply, sullenly. “They’re fine, it doesn’t matter.”
Why? It’s partly perverse protest: this winter is horrible and I’m determined to really feel how horrible it is; self-denial rather than self-care. I know Nora Ephron exhorted, “Always use the good bath oils”, but right now, even the 99p Radox feels too indulgent. I’m saving the best until things are actually better.
But there is more to it than that. It is fear, I think. I’m scared to hope, prey to a superstitious belief that optimism is dangerous. Because, as I dourly mop the always-muddy hall floor, a chink of light is creeping under the door. February is finally here, bringing with it the prospect of the worst receding. Every 10-minute increment of extra daylight is a gift; every vaccination a pinprick of hope, a parent, friend or sibling vastly safer. Saturday alone neared the 600,000-jab mark. Many of the people who go for the jab, apparently, are not hate dressing for V-day: there are many tales of lipstick worn under masks and Sunday best put on for the first day out in an age. Meanwhile, President Biden’s early executive orders and appointments have put the prospect of progress on racial justice, anti-discrimination and the climate catastrophe back in the frame in the US.
I am so unused to optimism, I don’t like how it feels. The author Nina Stibbe has written beautifully about allowing yourself to hope, with the natural pessimist’s assertion that “the brief joy of hope is sometimes all you’re ever going to get”. I tell this to myself regularly, but can’t risk feeling hopeful yet. Doesn’t looking straight on at any of these reasons to believe risk attracting the evil eye? With my glasses, at least there’s no danger of that.
• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist