Sporting baggy, grey tracksuit bottoms and with my right leg wrapped in more bandages than an Egyptian mummy, I’ve never felt less chic.
It’s hard to believe that a French woman would ever venture out looking so dowdy, yet I’m following a regimen that’s apparently the secret to their perfect pins.
It’s true: you rarely see a French woman with bad legs. Take film star Catherine Deneuve — she’s 70 but has the legs of a woman half her age. And during our family holiday in Brittany last year, I never saw a native without smooth, brown legs that weren’t just cellulite-free, but crucially sans the ugly thread veins and varicose veins that blighted my own pins.
I’m not alone. Varicose veins afflict one in three women in Britain, and from the knobbly blue worms and red spider’s legs that go on show here every summer, it’s clear French women know something we don’t.
“What they’re not telling you is that they visit a specialist called a phlebologist every year to have an MOT on their legs,’ reveals British vein specialist Dr Haroun Gajraj.
A phlebologist specialises in veins, and an annual check-up is part of French women’s health and beauty routine.
“French women have a yearly ultrasound scan, and any varicose veins or thread veins are nipped in the bud before they cause discomfort or start to look bad,” Dr Gajraj says.
Now we are finally following suit, with French-style preventative varicose vein clinics popping up in the UK. Dr Gajraj is in the vanguard of the new way of thinking. It’s likely to be the way forward as varicose vein ops become harder to get on the NHS due to cost-cutting. Cosmetic surgery firm Transform says varicose vein inquiries increased by 55 per cent last year.
In Britain, we traditionally wait until there’s a visible and uncomfortable problem and then remove the offending veins surgically, often under general anaesthetic.
This “stripping” involves a surgeon cutting into the groin, tying off the offending vein and then removing it with a wire “stripper”.
But recovery is slow and, according to Dr Gajraj, the procedure can actually stimulate the veins to grow back.
He says: “Having met colleagues from France at meetings and clinics I was struck by their approach which was more about maintenance and prevention.
“Since I introduced this approach it’s been very popular. With annual appointments, I now catch problems early.”
In the UK, varicose veins are commonly seen as nothing more than a cosmetic issue but, as Dr Gajraj explains, they can have a profound effect on a woman’s confidence.
“Some women’s lives are made miserable by their varicose veins,” he says. “They are concerned about going on holiday, or they won’t take their children swimming. It definitely has a negative impact on their lives.”
I certainly know how distressing varicose veins can be: depressingly they first appeared — running up the backs of both my legs between the upper calf and mid thigh — in my mid twenties.
Painful and unsightly, they throbbed in hot weather and made me feel twice my age. I was reluctant to wear shorts in the summer and felt self-conscious on beach holidays.
Eventually they were considered serious enough for surgery and, aged 30, I had stripping performed on both legs. My recovery required two weeks off work.
For ten years, I remained varicose vein free, albeit with a prominent cluster of thread veins by my right knee, but then four months ago unsightly veins reappeared behind my right knee and thigh.
I decided to visit Dr Gajraj at his clinic near Yeovil, Somerset, to see if he had a solution.
According to Dr Gajraj, my veins, including my patch of thread veins, are suitable for a treatment called foam sclerotherapy — where a medical foam is injected into the vein that causes it to dissolve and be absorbed into the body.
He can then remove the unsightly visible lumpy veins with micro-surgery under local anaesthetic, with the whole procedure set to take around two hours. Unlike stripping, I should be good to return to work within a couple of days.
According to Dr Gajraj, ultimately what decides whether you’ll get varicose veins are your genes. If either of your parents have them — in my case my dad — then there’s a good chance you will suffer, too.
Crossing your legs doesn’t cause them, but pregnancy, carrying extra weight and standing for long periods are aggravating factors for someone with a predisposition. As I know all too well, it’s a myth that they affect only older people and Dr Gajraj says many of his patients report symptoms starting from the 20s.
While no studies have been done on the impact of wearing high heels, Dr Gajraj says they impede good circulation as the ankle can’t flex enough when walking.
Modern life is making the problem worse. He admits: “You rarely see varicose veins in poorer African countries. They are much more common in the West, where we tend to lead more sedentary lives, are fatter and lazier.”
Varicose veins occur when valves in the veins in the legs stop functioning properly. As a result, blood runs backwards — known as reflux — and it can then leak into smaller veins. If the blood pools in veins near the surface of the skin and stretches them out of shape they become visible — a varicose vein.
While for most people the result is something that’s ugly and uncomfortable, Dr Gajraj explains varicose veins can be a precursor to more serious circulation problems that, in rare cases, can include deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
A couple of weeks after my initial appointment, I return to Dr Gajraj’s Melbury Clinic for my treatment.
Before he starts, he marks out veins for removal with blue marker pen. I gleefully point out a couple he has missed — something I later regret.
While treatment might be routine, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Embarrassingly, I nearly faint as he starts injecting me with the foam, and Dr Gajraj points out “that it’s usually the men who have such an extreme reaction”.
After injecting me with local anaesthetic, he then sets about the micro-phlebotomy, extracting the lumpy veins. While there’s no pain, it’s not a pleasant sensation as I can feel every push and tug. I wish I hadn’t pointed out the extra veins.
After two long hours, it’s finally over. Heavily bandaged, I am dispatched home to recover.
While my leg is extremely tender, there’s no doubt recovery is quicker than it was after my previous op — two days later I am back at work.
The obvious downside is that at £2,100 (Dh11,473), treatment was not cheap.
But Dr Gajraj points out that if I had come to him earlier — before my veins had become so prominent — he could have treated me for significantly less as I wouldn’t have required micro-surgery.
He says some clients forego a summer holiday to pay for their treatment, knowing that they don’t enjoy vacations with disfigured legs in any case.
Others justify it by comparing the cost with paying for cosmetic dental work or laser eye surgery.
But will anything slow the development of varicose veins if you have only a pauper’s budget?
“No studies have been done, but I think it makes sense that some things help,” Dr Gajraj says. “Walking is excellent, as the rocking motion of the foot effectively pumps blood back up the leg. Maintain a healthy weight and avoid standing for long periods.”
Lying down and elevating your legs above your hips in the evenings can also help.
He also recommends medical-grade surgical hosiery (those with diabetes or circulation issues should seek advice from their GP first).
Six weeks after my treatment, I return to Dr Gajraj for a check-up.
Apart from a faint bruise behind my thigh, where the largest varicose vein was removed, and another where the thread veins were treated, my legs are blemish-free for the first time in 15 years.
Gajraj is delighted — and so am I. So much so, I go out to buy a pair of tiny denim shorts to celebrate. Now it’s off to St Tropez to get a tan — though sadly it’ll have to be a fake tan for the time being.
But at least I’ve got legs I can show off with pride. Oooh la la!