I can’t take the person staring back at me,
Don’t wanna be my friend no more,
I wanna be somebody else
Pink, Don’t Let Me Get Me
I know I have a lot of things to offer. I’m not stupid, I have my own opinions, I like to be well-informed, I can make people laugh, I listen to people, I always try my absolute best at everything. I think I am relatively kind, I would never wish to inflict harm on anyone, I am fiercely protective of those closest to me, I believe everyone should be treated fairly regardless of gender, age, race, religion, sexuality, ability. And yet I feel all of that is redundant as I do not fit the stereotype of what beauty is. My worth as a woman is measured in my body and, by society’s standards, it’s not up to scratch.
As a woman, my currency is my physical appearance – something to trade, to offer, to bargain with, to entice, to exhibit, to distract, to promote. While there are a lot of voices out there championing body positivity and self-love, there has always been the subtext of the media, of those around us implying the opposite: women are only worth something to society if they are pretty.
I have been hyper-aware of what I look like for as long as I can remember. This is probably not helped by the fact I was an ‘early bloomer’; two weeks after my tenth birthday if we’re being precise. I was a D-cup by the time I was 12, and my breasts and hips grew so rapidly that I’ve been left with stretchmarks in both areas. They objectively don’t look that bad but they are on my body so therefore they are the worst and I hate them.
I’d erase every follicle of hair from my entire body bar my head, my brows and my lashes. I want creamy smooth skin with zero blemishes, except the odd mole or freckle. My stomach would be flat but not to the point where you could see my ribs and my waist would be distinct. My thighs would be rid of the dimples that adorn them and they’d be strong and toned, alongside my slimmer calves. My hips would not be as wide but still curved enough. My arms would be tighter and have no unwanted movement in them, while not being too muscly. My boobs would show just the right amount of cleavage when I intend to show it, my bum would be rounder and my back more shapely. I’d have a more defined jawline and cheekbones; I wouldn’t have to contour because I’d look like that naturally. My eyesight would be perfect so I’d no longer have to wear glasses or wrestle with contacts. My pupils wouldn’t be so big so the green of my eyes, which I actually like, would be seen more vividly. My lips would be fuller and plumper, and my mouth slightly wider. My hair would be thick and luscious, think a Herbal Essences advert, while still being manageable and willing to go into the style of my choosing. If anyone knows someone that can do all this for me, let me know.
I could always fall back on being intelligent. I was top of the class through the majority of my school years, in the top sets for most subjects, I’m relatively articulate, hard-working and can understand things quickly. This is my domain, yet I would have traded all of this, and maybe still would, to be a girl who was considered attractive and worthy of attention.
I have always struggled with my own image and more importantly, how others perceive me. If I don’t like what I see, that’s fine as long as others do. I shouldn’t care about what others think and that as long as I’m happy and healthy, that’s all that matters. But I do and I’m not.
One memory stands out very clearly in my mind. I was playing around with a make-up set I’d been given as a present and was smearing my lips with the brightest red available. At the time, the celebrity most synonymous with red lips was Angelina Jolie. Before we get to the next bit, I would like to point out that I actually realise now that Angelina Jolie is stunningly beautiful and as a heterosexual woman, I so would. However, this took place around the time she got together with Brad Pitt and I therefore believed she was a slutty homewrecker who had so little respect for other women, she went around stealing their husbands. I loved Jennifer Aniston very much and I could not bring myself to betray her by admitting Angelina Jolie was pretty. I apologise for the internalised misogyny I had as a ten-year-old. As you were.
The following is me paraphrasing:
Me: I look like Angelina Jolie now.
Dad: No you don’t, she’s gorgeous.
Me: Er no, she’s actually ugly.
Dad: Oh, well maybe you do look like her.
To this day, I am unsure if this event took place. My head says no way, I dreamt it, imagined it and the dream has stuck. My dad would never be so callous as to say that to his ten-year old daughter who he loves dearly. He has never said anything like this before or since. But my memory of sitting on the floor, opposite the TV between my mum’s legs as she perched on the chair behind me, me looking at the sofa where my dad was lounging, drink in hand, and the large box of cheap make-up lying open at my feet, is so vivid and so distinct in my head, I feel and know it to be true.
The ritualistic way young girls and women highlight their perceived flaws to their inner circle (take that scene from Mean Girls as an example) was something that I’ve never taken part in. As my friends around me gave out cries of ‘I’m fat’, I never once said the same thing. I may have quelled the others’ fears by genuine denial but the whole concept of sharing our insecurities unsettled me. I knew I was the fat one. If I voiced this fact, I’d either be met with futile protests and empty compliments or worse; silence. Both these options, the first of lies, the second of hushed confirmation, terrified me so instead I remained quiet.
That’s one thing I hate – false compliments thrown at me. How I look has never gotten me anywhere or opened any doors, so why should I believe them? If I ever do hear a compliment like that, which is rare in itself, I feel that everyone else in the room has turned to stare at me, scrutinising me, trying to conceal laughter. That they’re all in on one big joke and I’m the punchline.
I hate the fact that I can’t take a compliment. While I might smile shyly and thank the person, I don’t feel their words: if they’re not saying it as a joke, it’s only out of pity. And this is where I get angry; why can’t I feel good about myself? Why can’t I just appreciate and enjoy a compliment when it’s given? Why can’t I see positives instead of negatives? Maybe I don’t look as bad as I fear I do?
The beauty industry would die if our perceptions of femininity (and masculinity) did not exist. The media creates the illusion of what the perfect woman looks like and implies that any deviation is less attractive and less valuable. Then the cosmetic industry chimes in with their goods that will make us slimmer, extend our lashes, redden our lips, make our skin glow and our hair shine, capitalising on the insecurities they have created and perpetuated. They will continue churning out their false images, rolling in their piles of money, while the rest of us are left crying and desperate because the products did not make us look like the models in the adverts, we are not Amazonians, not ethereal, not beautiful. And the vicious cycle continues.
I know all this. I’m aware of the tactics the media and businesses use to create inferiority. I know it’s all a bullshit ploy to make money. I don’t really believe it. And yet I am still upset that I don’t look like the girls in the adverts. What if no one else can see through it? What if that is what people really do expect us to look like? Are we a disappointment because we don’t look like that? I worry that people, specifically men, view the women in the media as representative of their gender. Whether they are exposed to these images through film or TV or music or porn or advertising, there is always the concern they will expect all women to look and act like that.
Even though women have more rights now than we’ve ever had before (unless of course Donald Trump gets his way), even though we can become CEOs and politicians and artists and doctors, even though the world is more open to us now than it ever has been before, I think that despite all the progress we’ve made, we are still judged for the way we look. When we walk into a room, the size of our tits, the length of our legs, the curve of our hips are all assessed. It, whether we like it or not, can still determine how far we get in our career or how many rungs up the social ladder we can climb. The whole thing is based on how fuckable we are.
It makes me angry. I’m angry that we calculate our worth by how many people fancy us. I’m angry that feelings of self-love are pushed aside in case we look vain or arrogant. I’m angry the thoughts of others are given precedence to our own. I’m angry for the young people who can’t enjoy their childhood like they should because they are worried by their appearance. I’m angry for the young me who stopped swimming, even though she enjoyed it, because she didn’t want anyone to see her in a bathing suit, who only wore black because the magazines told her it made her look slimmer and who no longer wears anything that may show the back of her thighs because her mother mentioned when she was 12 that she had cellulite. I’m angry that I think about what I look like approximately 75% of the day. I’m angry because I genuinely cannot remember a time when I didn’t care.
For me to get to a place where I am proud and confident in my own body and appearance is unthinkable. I envy those who are happy and content with how they look, and who do not constantly worry with what others think of them. I could settle with just getting to a state of neutrality, neither loving nor hating what I see when I look in the mirror. I think I could be content with that.