Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The debt women owe

I’m in debt to society. And it’s not just my student loan. It’s a debt I’ll never repay, something I will owe forever. But like that library book from about seven years ago, I have no intention of paying my dues. As a woman, I owe perpetual prettiness to society, but send in the bailiffs: you ain't having it.

Let’s start at the beginning. I remember a time when I wasn't self-conscious; the glory days of my childhood when my snap-happy parents would capture me toothless and beaming on a seaside somewhere, caked in sand. Simpler times. But as I grew older, into my tween and teen years, I realised that imperfect photos of myself were no longer funny or silly, they no longer captured an unguarded moment: they were deeply embarrassing and altogether unacceptable. If a photo caught me by surprise, I demanded the photographer delete it, lest I throw a tantrum and reap revenge with similarly coveted images to show our friends – or worse – the boys. My hair couldn't be too frizzy or cover too much or too little of my face, my chin had to be at the right angle to avoid the appearance of a sly second one, my shoulders couldn't be too hunched. Getting a photo that looked even remotely natural was not an option: my image had to be flawless. This fear of perceived ugliness has followed me for years, but never did it become more acute when I found myself on Facebook, ogling jealously at the girls who could look pretty while giggling or smiling with their mouth shut, coquettishly. And even now I have to stop myself from experiencing the same feelings of inadequacy when faced with my own complexion looking back at me. And what’s worse is that I bet not many, but almost all of the women reading this will feel the same about themselves.

Many issues are at play here: we live in a world where perfection isn't desired but required of our female role models. Even women who don’t make a living from their beauty, women who never bought into the beauty industry in the first place, are expected to perk up and slim down and breathe in. Hilary Clinton, Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez: some of the most powerful women of the modern age have been derided as sexless, ugly crones, their minds far less worthy of analysis than a particularly “unflattering” outfit or haircut. But what it comes down to, what I think is ultimately at play here, is the idea that women owe society something. In this case, women owe society prettiness. Prettiness isn’t just an arbitrary added bonus to an already brilliant woman; it is the price she must pay for occupying space in the public sphere. When women take up air time, the very least they can do is titillate the audience while they say their bit and before they bugger off into obscurity again. Those not pretty enough to meet some undefined yet ever-oppressive standard, can either expect to be blocked from the success they’re owed, or forcefully scolded on mass by newspapers, commentators and the trolls of the internet, who are absolutely outraged, literally spitting with fury, that a conventionally unattractive woman be allowed to rear her head above the parapet and actually say something. How dare she? Doesn't she feel mortally ashamed of herself for her inadequate looks?

It’s the same force at play on a smaller scale with me and my wee life in London, with my 500 odd Facebook friends. I’m belligerently forcing myself out of this mind-set but when left unchecked, my subconscious (and usually all too conscious) mind can’t bear to be seen looking less than lovely, for fear that people will think less of me. They may judge me. They may be surprised that such an unflattering image has surfaced. They may think I’m becoming sloppy. And this is because I've been socialised to believe that as a woman, I owe people perpetual prettiness, and that any less than this will result in a personal failure on my part, a failure to behave in a way that I know to be the norm. And when people, particularly women, behave in ways outside of the norm, we make ourselves vulnerable to scorn and harsh judgement. But that judgement is at fault, not your double chin. And in turn that of course means that, as a woman, other women owe you nothing too. You don’t have the right to feel repulsed or offended or incredulous when a fellow woman looks a little less than perfect. That roll of fat is fine where it is and that sweat patch is supposed to be there. I know this is a problem with patriarchal standards, but thanks to internalised sexism women can be as complicit in this problem as men, which makes it all the more tricky to navigate.

You may be thinking to yourself: hey now, lighten up, it’s not so bad. You don’t have to be pretty, nobody will die if you’re not. And sure, you’d be right. If I put a picture of myself on Facebook with a few spots and mad hair, I won’t be thrown from my home and branded a leper. But when women live in constant anxiety about their appearance and whether or not they've met this standard of beauty, it can make life significantly less fun and the internet significantly more hostile. For example, on Sunday I ran the Bupa 10,000 race in London. I've been training for this 10k endurance test for around a month, and as I waited among thousands of runners at the starting line, I nervously bounced from foot to foot, listening to the excitable titters of my peers. Two women directly in front of me were talking about this time last year when they’d run the race for the first time. One woman explained to the other that she’d beaten her target time by over three minutes but the photos that Bupa’s photographers took of her were disgusting. She described herself as mortified by the images. The other woman laughed empathetically and said that if she saw a camera along the route, she’d duck her head down, even if it meant running into a fellow runner. They laughed: I died a little inside. This woman had completed a very difficult physical challenge and exceeded her target by a significant margin, but the take-away lesson was how unacceptable it was that she’d looked sweaty and unappealing while she did it. The pride she felt in her achievement was marred by the way in which her moist, pink face had been captured in the act of her own success. How truly depressing is that? Had I not been crippled by a case of the ‘nervous-need-a-wee’s, I’d have leaned in (as Sheryl taught me) and patiently explained that she didn't owe those onlookers perfection: she owes nobody anything and she should be able to appear dripping with sweat, with seven chins and dodgy wonky boobs and feel absolutely no fear of judgement whatsoever. I refrained because that would have also been entirely patronising and far too complex an issue to tackle mere seconds before the klaxon rang.

I’m not suggesting that as a woman, trying to make yourself look attractive is a poor choice of activity. I get an expensive haircut once every eight weeks, I wear mascara, I wear clothes that suit my shape. I even occasionally pick profile pictures that make me look the nicest I can be. Just because I’m calling out the problem doesn't mean I’m not myself a victim to it, as I probably will be for life. But if a photo exists of you and you don’t look how you want people to think you look, try not to delete it. I hate to break it to you, but that is in fact what you look like. And what you look like is fucking brilliant, not “imperfect”. Also, unless you’re a model, it’s completely irrelevant.

And finally, to the men out there – the ones who this is news to, and even to the ones who get it right 99% of the time, but still grimace when they see a picture of Beth Ditto: women don’t owe you prettiness or sexiness, or a smile. Your gratification means absolutely nothing. Women also don’t owe you a sexy dance in a club, a kiss, or sex. Your entitlement as you stare at me in the street or grab at my hand in a club is ludicrous. If you want to look at a person who works in an industry where beauty is the currency, Google ‘models’ and have yourself a field day. Just don’t expect prettiness to be delivered to you via every medium you choose, then be disappointed when it’s not. 

I also owe this blog to somebody: Erin McKean of A Dress a Day first got me thinking about this a few years ago and I've partially stolen her words. Reading what she had to say for the first time was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. So check it out. And while you're at it, here are the photos Bupa's paparazzi took of me. See, I'm putting my money where my mouth is. Oh, and I beat my hour target and raised £565 for Refuge, so my appearance couldn't be further down my list of things to be proud of right now.

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